The first day of this month marked the tenth anniversary of the space shuttle Columbia disaster, which resulted in the deaths of all seven astronauts—including Ilan Ramon, the first Israeli to travel outside the earth’s atmosphere. After his death, two pages of his inflight diary were found in a Texas field, having somehow survived the shuttle’s disintegration. Reflecting on their contents, Meir Soloveichik writes:
One [page] clearly describes the wonder of liftoff: shmonah dakot, v’od shniyot, . . . anaḥnu ba-ḥalal—“eight minutes and a few more seconds, . . . we are in space!” The man who had experienced more aviation than most . . . could not contain his wonder at the launch.
On the other page were words of a very different sort. Knowing that he would be spending Shabbat in space, Ramon had brought with him the words of the kiddush, the traditional Friday-night blessing over sacred time: “Blessed art Thou . . . who sanctifies us with His commandments . . . and You gave us in love this Sabbath day, . . . a remembrance of the act of creation, . . . first among sacred days, a remembrance of the Exodus of Egypt.”
Studying both pages, I realized that I was seeing a simple and sublime summation of one of the great works of Jewish thought: Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik’s The Lonely Man of Faith. Composed during the space race, The Lonely Man of Faith ponders two aspects of human nature that are equally ingrained with us. The first is the urge for invention, which has glorious and life-affirming results: “Man of the 17th and 18th centuries who needed several days to travel from Boston to New York was less dignified than modern man who attempts to conquer space, boards a plane at the New York airport at midnight and takes several hours later a leisurely walk along the streets of London.” Or, as Ilan Ramon might have put it: eight minutes, a few seconds, . . . and we are in space.
Yet Rabbi Soloveitchik urges modern society to remember that a world solely defined by technology would leave us less connected, not more; only in a faithful covenantal community are we truly linked to those who have come before and those who follow; . . . and suddenly arrayed virtually before me were exquisite embodiments of his themes: one page about the wonder of orbiting the earth in a few minutes of time, and one page describing the desire of Jews throughout eternity to experience sacred time and unite ourselves with those who come before.