Ramon died a Jewish hero and lived as a Jewish soul

The first thing I thought was that it must be terrorism.

So it is being an American in the 21st century. So it is being a Jew.

After I had a minute to take in the news of the Columbia disaster, I knew it was very unlikely that it could have been terrorists. But that's where my mind first went. Seemed all too logical, all too likely. Welcome to the new world we all live in, the world Jews and lovers of Israel have been inhabiting for quite some time.

It is because Jews and Israelis have, for more than two years now, been subject to a horrific barrage of loss that the loss of Ramon is all the harder, all the more tragic, all the more cruel, all the more bitter.

An Israeli in space. Speaking Hebrew. Eating kosher chicken. With the Star of David on his sleeve. With a Torah scroll beside him. Making Kiddush on Shabbat. Honoring the Holocaust by bringing a work of art done by one of the 6 million into outer space.

He didn't have to do all that, this man, who by his very being was symbol enough. Son and grandson of Holocaust survivors. Hero of the raid on the Iraqi nuclear reactor. Colonel in the Israel Defense Force. Citizen of the state of Israel.

He brought with him what he brought because he said he was representing all of us, all Jews, all of Judaism.

How unbelievably beautiful he was in doing that.

The second thing I thought after I heard the devastating news was of my father, who survived the Holocaust, and of his father, who didn't, and the other 6 million like him.

How amazed they all would have been, less than 60 years after hell on earth, that there was a Jew, a Hebrew-speaking, Torah-carrying Jew, up in space.

The third thing I thought of was the line uttered by Tevye in "Fiddler on the Roof." "I know we're your chosen people," he says in one of his conversations with the Almighty, "but can't you sometimes choose someone else?"

I was mad. Why again? Why especially this? Why especially now, when good Jewish news is so rare and heartfelt Jewish tears are so plentiful?

Why such a horrible end to such an inspiring story? A story that saw a Torah scroll taken into space. And not just any Torah scroll but one rescued by a young boy in Bergen-Belsen who survived and moved to Israel, where he became a planetary physics professor.

Now, that Torah is gone, having survived Bergen-Belsen but not re-entry over Texas. And, more importantly, the Jew who clung to it, is gone.

The fourth thing I thought is that it truly is not easy to be a Jew. That's a cliché, I know, and one I have never liked. And yet one that seemed most appropriate.

I wondered why, there having been two shuttles that have blown up, both had a Jew aboard, Judith Resnik on Challenger, Ilan Ramon on Columbia. I wondered why this disaster happened not only on Shabbat, but on the first day of the Hebrew month of Adar.

"When Adar enters," our tradition teaches us, "joy increases."

Not on this first day of this Adar.

Having observed Shabbat, as is my wont, I did not learn of the disaster until about 10 hours after it happened. And so, I had an additional 10 hours of blissful ignorance. So it was when Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated.

While the death of Ramon, like that of Rabin, has devastated me, shaken me, made me mad and sad, it has, most of all, strengthened my respect for Israel, for Judaism, for God.

That the young and besieged Jewish country can produce a Ramon is a testament to why Jews for thousands of years prayed and worked and struggled for a Jewish state, and testament to what those who live there have done with that state in the 52 years of its existence.

Ramon made no bones about the fact that he was a staunchly secular Jew. And yet, Judaism was in his bones, was what defined him. He didn't take a falafel sandwich up into space with him, but a Torah, a Kiddush cup, kosher food. He understood the essence of a Jew is Judaism. And in so doing, in so showing, he sent a powerful and inspiring message.

As for God, I don't understand why this had to happen. I cry for all Jews everywhere, who took such pride in Ramon. I cry for his children and his parents and his wife and his family, who have lost a whole world, lost an amazing father and son and husband.

But I believe. I know there is a reason. I know it is for good. I know that Ramon had a mission beyond the one given him by NASA. He had, too, a mission from God. One he fulfilled with flying colors. And so, mission accomplished, God welcomed him home.

Shortly after takeoff, Ramon commented on how the colors of the sky he was now part of were the colors of his country, of his people. Blue and white.

He saw those colors better than the rest of us, was closer to the face of God than the rest of us will ever be.

And his response came not in scientific or technological jargon, not in the talk of the flamboyant fighter pilot or the emotionless "right stuff" astronaut.

His response came in the simple, stirring words he recited every night he was up in space — the words of the Sh'ma.

Ramon has taught us so much, showed us so much about what it means to be an Israeli, what it means to be a Jew, what it means to be a mensch.

While up in space, holding that Torah scroll while speaking via satellite to the prime minister of Israel, Ramon said the Torah symbolizes "more than anything the ability of the Jewish people to survive everything, including horrible periods, and go from the darkest of days to days of hope and faith in the future.''

This year, the first Shabbat of the joyous new month of Adar was the darkest of days. But Ramon showed us that the Jewish people is about survival, is about, no matter what, always having hope and faith in the future.

Yes, we must remember those last 16 tragic minutes of the shuttle Columbia, mourn his loss, honor his memory. But much more importantly, each of us, all of us, must remember the 16 days he spent in space, the 48 years he spent on earth.

Remember that while Ramon died a Jewish hero, much more importantly, he lived as a Jewish soul.