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Yizkor: May 21, 2018

Rabbi Randall Konigsburg

Hag Sameach.

I was reading this week about Dr. Jeff Hoffman. I don’t know if you remember him, but he was one of the astronauts on the Space Shuttle, flying several missions during the 1980’s and 1990’s. His doctorate is in astrophysics. He is also Jewish. Retired from the space program, he does programming for the American Association for the Advancement of Science. For each of his five missions into space, he took with him several Jewish artifacts, a mezuzah, dreidels (spinning them in zero gravity must be …um… Interesting) and the atarah of the tallit that his son would wear on his Bar Mitzvah. On his last mission into space, he took a small Torah scroll.

I was reading about Dr. Hoffman in an essay by Rachel Roz from Hebrew College in Boston where he spoke last year. She was writing about it now for two reasons. The first reason was that it was Shavuot, the time we recall the giving of the Torah at Sinai. She writes, “Dr. Hoffman’s story reminds us and the young generation that now (and maybe more than ever) thousands of years after Sinai, while we are engaged with the most advanced human exploration and innovation, the Torah, the Jewish tradition and wisdom retains relevance and importance.  In a video recording from his flight, Jeff explained the significance of bringing a Torah into space. At this historic moment, Jeff said, ‘Space didn’t make the Torah special … rather the Torah made space special, Bringing humanity into space.’”

Bringing a Torah into space is only a part of the story. A Torah is not just a ritual object that one can pack up and take it into space. He had to find a Torah that was the right size and weight so that it could go on the space shuttle. Dr. Hoffman’s Rabbi, Shaul Osadchey, marshalled the power of his entire congregation to find the right Torah that would be able to make the trip. It was not just the desire of one astronaut that brought a Torah into space, but it took his entire community to bring about this special event.

But the story of the Torah in space is more than the story of one community. While Dr. Hoffman was in space, his community and his family were waiting below for his return. They all played a part in making it happen. Dr. Hoffman’s father gave him a love of astronomy by taking him to a planetarium in New York. He once sat out on a football field at dusk to see the first sputnik satellite, through a telescope, cross the night sky. There were the many teachers who recognized his love of space and rockets and who guided him to a career in astrophysics. They encouraged him to teach what he loved to other students. Parents and educators are also a part of his story.

We can sit and wonder about a Torah being taken into space. We can puzzle over matters of Halacha, Jewish law, and how they apply off the surface of our planet. There is an old joke about the first observant Jew in space who returns to earth exhausted. When asked why he was so worn out, he replied, “it was terrible, every 73 minutes, it was Shacharit, Mincha, Maariv. … But there are other questions as well. When do you start and when do you end Shabbat? Which way would you face in prayer? Where do you put the mezuzah on a space shuttle?

Can you even imagine studying Torah in space? It should not matter if we are standing on earth or orbiting around our planet; the words of Torah always guide our lives. Torah is what links our people to each other, and across the generations, no matter if we are thousands of miles above the surface of our planet. The very essence of our faith can be found in the Torah and therefor no matter where people may travel, it speaks to who we are and what we aspire to be. It stands in for the centuries of wisdom and knowledge that our ancestors teased from its words and letters. Dr. Hoffman was certainly not alone when he brought a Torah into space. That Torah stands in for the entire Jewish people who, represented by Torah, were with Dr. Hoffman on his voyage into the unknown.

We have reached the end of this holiday of Shavuot. I call this holiday, “the forgotten holiday” because, unlike Sukkot and Pesach, there are no preparations for Shavuot and no rituals that require much thought ahead of time. The Talmud actually considers Shavuot to be the concluding days of Pesach. Just as Shemini Atzeret is the concluding day of Sukkot, coming 7 days after the holiday begins; so too Shavuot is the concluding days of Pesach, coming seven weeks after the beginning of the holiday.

And yet, Shavuot is all about receiving Torah. It is all about remembering what happened at this time of year, thousands of years ago, on Mt. Sinai. Yesterday we noted that the revelation at Sinai was not just the climax of the story of the Exodus, it was the reason that God created the world from the beginning. The Torah is the blueprint for every part of this world that we know. Even if we were to walk the surface of other planets, the universal teachings of the Torah would still guide us, no matter where we might be in … well, the universe!

But just like the flight of Dr. Hoffman, we do not travel alone when we travel with our Torah. We travel with the teachers and the Jewish communities that have lived by Torah throughout history. The words on the parchment are certainly important, but the meaning of those words, the way they have been interpreted throughout the ages, also travels with us when we travel with the Torah. We just don’t sit back on Shavuot and wish the Torah a happy birthday. We honor today everyone in history who helped increase the knowledge of Torah in the world.

And this is why we have Yizkor on the last day of Shavuot. It is one thing to remember, at the end of every major holiday, parents, siblings and other family members who are now missing from our holiday table. Rather than ignore the empty seat where they once sat, we put aside this time in our holiday to remember the love we have for them and the influence in our lives that still echoes even though their presence is gone.

But on this holiday of Shavuot, where we celebrate receiving the Torah, we take this moment to remember those who gave us the Torah. The members of our family from whom we personally received the Torah. Those who gave us our love of learning, our love of God and our love of Judaism. They received the Torah from the generation before and they, in turn gave Torah to us. Yizkor reminds us of the different ways we continue to receive Torah and calls us to task for transferring this gift to the next generation.

The Story of the Torah that went into space is not just a story about Dr. Hoffman. There will soon be a documentary about this journey of Jew and Torah and perhaps we will learn something from his experience. But Dr. Hoffman’s story is also our story. We did not go into space with a scroll of Torah, but we have gone out into life, holding fast to the Torah and all that it teaches us. Just as Dr. Hoffman had the support of his community, we have the support of the entire Jewish community. Just as Dr. Hoffman remembered his parents and teachers as he took his Torah into space, so too do we remember today, our parents and teachers to whom we owe a debt because we received Torah from them. Even if they have died and are gone, our parents and teachers are who we must remember on this holiday of Torah.

As we prepare for Yizkor, I am sure that we remember the love that we once knew from family members who are no longer with us. But let us also remember the Torah that they taught us. Let us remember how much of who we are as Jews is the result of their teaching and their love. They sent their Torah out into the world in our arms, with the knowledge that it would be with us no matter where we traveled, and, when the time would come, we would pass their Torah/now our Torah to those who are starting their journey. Life doesn’t make Torah special, rather, Torah makes life special. It brings humanity and God together into the very essence of life.

May God help us receive the Torah today, receiving it from those who came before us. And may God never let us forget, those who were our teachers of Torah, who made this journey in life possible as we say … Amen and Hag Sameach

Let us rise for the Yizkor serviceSermon given by Rabbi Randall Konigsburg at Beth Sholom B’nai Israel on Monday, May 21, 2018.

Fri, May 24 2019 19 Iyyar 5779