It’s been twelve years since the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. The assassination by a Jew of the Prime Minister of Israel remains a horrible tragedy over a decade later. Unless it becomes a part of our ritual behavior we run the risk of forgetting this terrible moment in Jewish history.
The day after Rosh Hashanah, this year Sunday the 16th, is known as the Fast of Gedaliah. It is one of a series of minor fasts that commemorate tragedies connected with the Babylonian Exile. Unlike the other fasts which commemorate events leading up to the destruction of the Temple, this incident took place several years after the destruction of the First Temple.
According to the Bible in both II Kings 22 and Jeremiah 39-41, the Babylonians named Gedaliah, a Jewish man, as governor over Israel after the Temple’s destruction. “And as for the people who remained in the land of Judah, whom Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon had left, over them he made Gedaliah the son of Ahikam, the son of Shaphan, ruler. (II Kings 22:22)” Gedaliah told the people to “not be afraid.” As long as they maintained a nominal allegiance to Babylon, they would remain free and under Jewish rule. Little of their day to day lives would change.
Among the men of importance at the time, Ishmael the son of Nethaniah refused to accept Gedaliah’s rule. He probably accused Gedaliah of collaborating with the enemy. Ishmael almost certainly felt that Israel must remain free of Babylonian control. Gedaliah’s leadership, in his eyes, served only to legitimate domination by a foreign power.
Ishmael misjudged the political reality of the time. Gedaliah was the only thing standing between Israel and the Babylonians. The Babylonians were willing to permit limited Home Rule. Any further revolt would result in the complete destruction of Israel.
“But it came to pass in the seventh month, that Ishmael the son of Nethaniah, the son of Elishama, of royal seed, came, and ten men with him, and struck Gedaliah, and he died, and the men of Judah and the Chaldeans who were with him at Mizpah ( II Kings 21:25).” According to the Rabbis, Ishmael was motivated only by his own lust for power. That is why the Bible mentions Ishmael was of royal blood. He thought he, rather than Gedaliah should have been the Governor. Whatever his reasons, Ishmael’s actions were an unmitigated disaster. It ended any hope of political independence for the next hundred years.
The fast of Gedaliah was instituted both to remember Gedaliah and to prevent similar tragedies. Jews remember history. Hopefully, we avoid repeating our mistakes. Gedaliah’s tragic end teaches us the dangers of Jew killing Jew. Such tragedies serve only to weaken us, never to strengthen us.
In 1995, another Jew executed a political leader for virtually identical reasons. Yigal Amir believed that Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was a traitor, in collaboration with Arafat against the best interests of the Jewish people. Prior to Rabin’s assassination, Israel’s Secret Service barely worried about the Prime Minister’s security from other Jews. The memory of Gedaliah was too faint and it happened again.
Political differences are the life blood of democracy. A particular policy may create opposition, but political assassination weakens the fabric of democracy. We should always be passionate in our disagreements over peace – but we should also see in those disagreements a genuine love for Israel and for the Jewish people. Rabin’s death was a tragedy because political disagreement became spilled blood. The passion to save Jewish lives took a Jewish life.
This year, I encourage all of us to observe Gedaliah’s Fast in memory of both Gedaliah and Rabin. It is a sunrise to sunset fast, meaning the fast begins at 6:35am and ends at 7:41pm. Rabin’s assassination was a grave tragedy that deserves being attached to ritual memory. God willing, by commemorating Rabin’s loss in this liturgical fashion, the memory of his assassination will prevent another such tragedy for at least the next 2500 years.
Wishing You an Easy Fast & a Shana Tova,
Rabbi David Booth