In 1981, IAF Col. Ilan Ramon flew one of the F-16 jets that blew up the Iraqi nuclear reactor in Osirak. In so doing he saved the country and perhaps the entire world from the specter of a nuclear holocaust.
For the past 16 days, as Israel's first astronaut, Ilan Ramon again saved us. This time he was not armed with a payload of bombs on a fighter craft. This time Ramon set off for outer space on the Columbia space shuttle, armed with a picture of the Earth as seen from the moon drawn by a Jewish boy in Theresienstadt concentration camp, a torah scroll from Bergen Belsen, a microfiche copy of the bible, the national flag and the dreams and hopes of the State of Israel and the Jewish people.
Ramon saved us this time not by clearing our skies of the threat of nuclear attack, but by reminding us of who we are and of what we can accomplish if we only have faith in ourselves.
Ramon made clear at every opportunity that he went to outer space, not simply as a citizen of the State of Israel, but as a Jew. As the representative of the Jewish people he recited kiddush on Friday night. As a Jew he said Shema Yisrael as the space shuttle orbited over Jerusalem. As a Jew he insisted on eating only kosher food in outer space. And as a Jew he told the Prime Minister from his celestial perch, "I think it is very, very important to preserve our historical tradition, and I mean historical and religious traditions."
In so doing he showed that there is no limit to what a person can accomplish as a Jew. He said to all Jews, here in Israel and throughout the world, even as anti-Semitism again threatens us, even as Jews in Israel are being murdered just for being Jews, our enemies will never define us or tell us there are limits to what we can do.
But Ilan Ramon was not simply a Jew. He was an Israeli Jew. And, as a scientist and fighter pilot his was the face of Israeli exceptionalism. Ramon excelled in all he did. He was first in his class in high school. He was first in his class in flight school. He was first in his class in astronaut training.
In a break from the Air Force in the 1980s, after completing his studies in electrical engineering and computer science at Tel-Aviv University, Ramon joined the team at Israel Aircraft Industries that developed the Lavi fighter jet. On the Columbia, Ramon conducted environmental research on desertification.
Today, when mediocrity seems to be the unifying characteristic of so many of the personalities that make up our national landscape, Ramon reminded us of what we can and should aspire to.
Speaking of Ramon a few months before the shuttle launch, his fellow astronauts praised his professionalism above all.
As we have been consumed for more than two years with our daily reality of terrorism and pain, Ramon reminded us that there are other sides to our lives in Israel. Our mastery of science has placed our tiny state at the cutting edge of space research. Like our friends, the Americans, we will not be limited by gravity in our quest for answers to the riddles of the universe.
Finally, Ramon was a husband to Rona and father to Assaf, Tal, Yiftach and Noa.
Our hearts go out to his family members. But we can only pray that they will take comfort in the fact that in his life, their Ilan saved both the life and the spirit of his country.
Originally published in The Jerusalem Post.