Long before he became the first Israeli to be launched into space, Ilan Ramon, as a 23-year-old fighter pilot, asked Prof. Yeshayahu Leibowitz: “What is man’s purpose in this world?” Leibowitz did his best to answer
I have long struggled with many strange questions that can perhaps be gathered under the heading: What is man’s purpose in this world? And the more questions that are asked, the greater the contradictions and ambiguities.
I am a young man—23 years old. I turn to you—an older person with such rich knowledge and experience, whose opinion is so important to me—I turn to you and ask:
How do you see the world we live in?
How do you explain the essence of life?
How do you view man’s purpose and goal in life?
And how is a man to achieve this purpose?
And you, honorable Professor, looking back, do you think that you have achieved the goals or purpose placed before you?
Dear Professor, I know how limited your time is and [that it is] devoted to important matters, and yet I would be very grateful if you could address my questions and perhaps enlighten me on life’s dark path.
The young Israeli Air Force pilot Ilan Ramon sent the above letter to Professor Yeshayahu Leibowitz in 1977.
Five days later, Leibowitz sent his reply:
Dear Ilan Ramon,
Your question “How do you see the world we live in?” is not clear to me. What does “see the world” mean? Do you mean cosmologically, physically, metaphysically or…?
In your question, “How do you explain the essence of life?”—I do not know what you mean by the words “essence of life.” Do you mean biological, psychological, historical or…?
Regarding your question about “man’s purpose and goal in life”—there is no objective answer. In Pirkei Avot the sages say: “Against your will you were created, and against your will you were born, and against your will you live, and against your will you die”—and to these words, there is nothing more to add.
Man exists without having decided to be created or to be born or to live—he has no choice but to make a subjective decision about his goal and purpose in life—and there are countless possible decisions:
There are those who will find their own life to have no value, nor will they find any value in anything within that life—and they will commit suicide.
There are those who will see value and purpose in maximizing pleasure for themselves (material or sexual, or aesthetic, and so forth) all the days of their life.
There are those who will see value and purpose in acquiring knowledge—and will dedicate their lives to this.
There are those who will see value and purpose in helping their fellow man—and will dedicate their lives to this.
There are those who will see value and purpose in the service of their people and country—and will dedicate their lives to this.
There are those who will see value and purpose in serving God—and will dedicate their lives to this.
None of these decisions can be objectively justified, and every person—you and I included—must make their own decision.
Very truly yours,
On January 16th, 2003, more than 25 years after writing the letter above, Colonel Ilan Ramon became the first Israeli to enter space, aboard NASA’s Space Shuttle Columbia. Ramon and the rest of the seven-person crew perished only a few days later, on February 1st of that year, when the Columbia disintegrated upon reentry into Earth’s atmosphere.