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Beit Midrash Torah Portion and Tanach Masei

The Highs & the Lows

Rabbi Stewart WeissTamuz 27 5779
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As we start the 9 Days & approach Tisha B’Av, we think about the loss of the Bet HaMikdash & all the reasons why that tragedy happened. Rabbinic literature is filled with theories about what led to the breakdown of the Jewish community, & what specific sins were most at fault, such as bloodshed, immorality & sinat chinam. No doubt these still persist in our societies; note the all-too-frequent violence, such as the fatal shooting last week of a father of three in an altercation over a parking space; and the intra-Jewish antagonism in numerous Jewish communities.

But I want to focus for a moment on a rather oblique comment about the destruction in Gemara Shabbat: "Rav Yitzchak says: Yerushalayim was destroyed only because people equated the small with the great."

What exactly does Rav Yitzchak mean by this? Who are "the great" and who are "the small?"

This week I went to the Israel Museum in Yerushalayim, one of the premier museums in the world. One of the special exhibitions currently there is quite small, but absolutely amazing. It is the story, & display, of Ilan Ramon z"l’s celebrated notebook.

Ilan was a true hero of Am Yisrael & Medinat Yisrael. An air force colonel, he was the youngest pilot in Operation Opera, the daring & successful mission to destroy Iraq’s nuclear reactor at Osirak. But his defining moment was when he became Israel’s first & only astronaut, joining the crew of the space shuttle Columbia in 2003.

Though Ilan may not have considered himself "observant," he had a pure neshama. He was the first astronaut to request kosher food in outer space, & he took along with him a microfiche copy of the Torah, a miniature sefer Torah that had miraculously survived the Shoa, & even a dollar bill from the Lubavitcher Rebbe.

Tragically, the Columbia was destroyed upon re-entry, 16 minutes before landing, & the entire crew was killed. Two months later, in a Texas field, 37 pages of Ilan’s notebook were found. It took five years of painstaking effort & advanced infra-red technology to reconstruct the pages. Some of them are on display at the museum, including a copy of the Kiddush, which Ilan proudly brought with him. Said the curator: "There is no rational explanation as to how these pages survived the impact and the fire, & were somehow recovered."

Ilan wrote what a miracle from G-d it is that Man can rise to such awesome heights of accomplishment & can even conquer space, and he marveled that Earth is such a magnificent planet. And he recalled the suffering that his little Shoa Torah represented, & the need for Man to aspire to the good.

As I stared at that other-worldly notebook in the case, I suddenly understood Rav Yitzchak's words. "We Jews have been through so many traumatic times; times when we were brought low & made ‘small,’ " he was saying. "But don’t think that is our eternal fate; don’t doubt for a moment that we can reach the heights & that we can - & will - be great." Ilan rose physically higher than any Jew in history; he affirms that our holy nation, with G-d’s help, will rise above any other.
Rabbi Stewart Weiss
Was ordained at the Hebrew Theological College in Skokie, Illinois, and led congregations in Chicago and Dallas prior to making Aliyah in 1992. He directs the Jewish Outreach Center in Ra'anana, helping to facilitate the spiritual absorption of new olim.
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