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Reckoning with Rabin

Vayera 5776 / 31 October 2015

November 3, 2015

I heard the voice at the other end of the phone, but the words just didn’t make any sense. Up until that point, it hadn’t been the kind of night a person would remember twenty years after. I was out to dinner with my dad, typical enough for a Saturday night, when I got a page from my friend Phil. Still nothing out of the ordinary. My dad passed me a quarter and I headed over to the small alcove where a pay phone hung on the wall. On the second or third ring, Phil picked up and told me the news that made my head spin: Yitzhak Rabin had been shot and killed. It had been a difficult year already for Israel, with terrorist bombings and an ever-increasing sense of tension, and I immediately assumed that Palestinian terrorists were also responsible for this attack — and so I didn’t understand at first when Phil relayed the second half of the news: He was murdered by another Jew.

Twenty years later, the shock hasn’t abated; the Rabin assassination remains, for Israel and much of the Jewish world, an unresolved trauma. It calls into question the idea that as Jews we have a different relationship to power and violence than other nations. It challenges the idea of Jewish solidarity. In recent weeks, as we marked Rabin’s twentieth yahrzeit, many people have asked questions about Rabin’s legacy. Could we return to the values and actions Rabin represented? Would the Oslo Peace Process have collapsed anyway, even if Rabin had lived? And yet, amid all the theories and speculation, it seems to me that we are still avoiding the most difficult question of all: what are the lingering implications of the assassination itself?

I haven’t had a chance to read Dan Ephron’s new book on the Rabin assassination, Killing a King, which was published last week, but a recent episode of the radio program This American Life featured excerpts from his interviews with key figures in the story, including Haggai Amir, the assassin’s brother and co-conspirator. The most chilling part of the interviews came at the end, after an hour-long exploration of various conspiracy theories, when they returned to Haggai Amir — who repudiated all of the conspiracies. Calmly, without remorse, he insisted that he and his brother bore sole responsibility for the murder. “The problem with the conspiracy theories,” Amir insists, “Is that they take away the whole ideological statement [we] were trying to make by killing Rabin.”

He was murdered by another Jew. We can not escape the fact that one of our own, educated in well-respected yeshivot and universities, could commit such an act. Just a week after the assassination, Rav Aharon Lichtenstein, Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivat Har Etzion and a leader of Religious Zionism, already grasped this disturbing reality. In his remarks to the Yeshiva, he noted:

The circumstances of [Rabin’s] cold-blooded murder… are a source of great pain and distress for us…  We should feel deep shame that this method of supposedly solving conflicts has become part of our culture.

But naturally, this shame should be felt by our camp, the National Religious camp, more than any other.  Here was a man who grew up in the best of our institutions.  A day before the murder, he could have been cited as a shining example of success and achievement, and a source of communal pride… But if a day before the murder we would have said proudly, “See what we have produced,” we must say it now as well — “See what we have produced!”  It is indefensible that one who is willing to take credit when the sun is shining should shrug off responsibility when it begins to rain.

Yigal Amir, and Yigal Amir alone, pulled the trigger. His brother Haggai helped him plan and carry out the murder. Right-wing demagogues and religious extremists fanned the flames of hatred that burned within the Amir brothers. But as Rav Lichtenstein correctly notes, the community also bears responsibility for a climate in which an act like this could flourish. Through centuries of persecution and expulsion, in the dark night of the Shoah, during the early struggle to establish the State of Israel, we told ourselves that as Jews we had a fundamentally different relationship to power and violence than other nations. Ours was a culture of logic and persuasion, not force and aggression. However true that story might once have been, it was shattered forever by Yigal Amir’s bullets.

The Akedah, the binding of Isaac, stands as the climax of Abraham’s saga and one of the most dramatic moments in the whole Torah. In what the Torah explicitly frames as a test, God tells Abraham, “Take your son, your only one, Isaac, whom you love… and offer him… as a burnt offering.”[1]  Note the circling emphasis on Abraham’s relationship to Isaac: “your son,” whom we assume would be dear to any parent; “your only one,” for whom you longed and waited so many years; “whom you love” in particular as the embodiment of your hopes and dreams. Don’t gloss over the relationship, God seems to be saying; focus on just how special Isaac is to you, how precious, how much you love and care for him. Now go get your knife.

And then Abraham does it. No questions, no second thoughts or dawdling; first thing in the morning, Abraham loads the donkey, collects the boy, and sets off. Among the many striking features of this story, the Torah never answers or even acknowledges the question of whether Abraham was right to do God’s bidding with such zest. Even at the end of the story, with its narrow escape for Isaac, the Torah never weighs in on whether Abraham was right or wrong. The Torah’s glaring silence makes me wonder if that is even the right question to ask. Instead, the Torah seems to be interested in a different question: how far, really, might we be willing to go? Could a person, a Jew, the paradigmatic Jew, take the life of his only, beloved, cherished son, if he was convinced that it was God’s will? What could any of us be capable of, if we were sure we were right? From this perspective, it’s easier to understand Haggai Amir, unrepentant after twenty years, proud of what he and his brother did that night. The Akedah stands as a cautionary tale, not to underestimate the intense and dangerous passion of religious conviction.

Our parshah contains yet another story of fathers and sons, a tale no less gut-wrenching than the Akedah. Earlier in the Torah portion, Abraham — at Sarah’s insistence — banishes his son Ishmael together with the boy’s mother, the maidservant Hagar. What prompts this extreme reaction? The Torah doesn’t provide a definitive answer; it tells us only that “Sarah saw the son whom Hagar the Egyptian had borne to Abraham מְצַחֵֽק.”[2]  The Hebrew word מְצַחֵֽק, translated in our humashim as “playing,” appears only seven times in the Bible.[3] Three of the instances have a strong sexual connotation,[4] while the other four — including the verse in question here — remain more ambiguous. Nevertheless, from the way the Bible uses מְצַחֵֽק we see that it always indicates some violation of social morality; the people described as מְצַחֵֽק in some way go against accepted behavior in their communities, and others in the story react negatively to them.[5]

Here, too, we see that Ishmael’s being מְצַחֵֽק forms the basis for his expulsion. Still, the Torah goes out of its way to establish Abraham’s deep love for Ishmael: “The matter distressed Abraham greatly,” the verse tells us, “for it concerned a son of his.”[6] It’s easy to imagine that Abraham might have loved Ishmael every bit as much as Isaac; and still, in the face of morally unacceptable behavior, Abraham was willing to send him away. However painful it may be, sometimes we reach a point where lines need to be drawn, where questions of morality demand that we distance ourselves from people who can not behave with decency and respect toward other human beings, no matter how much we might still love them.

Twenty years ago, two brothers plotted to kill one politician. Today, we reap the bitter fruit of their legacy in the form of hundreds of “hilltop youth” camped out across Judea and Samaria, who vandalize Palestinian orchards and terrorize the local population. We now have Jewish terrorists who — acting in the name of our Torah and the Jewish people — carry out the “price tag” attacks that led, inexorably, to a firebombing in Duma this summer that left three Palestinians — including an 18-month-old baby — dead, and a four-year-old boy orphaned. And this week, many of us were horrified to see the video of a knife-wielding settler attacking Rabbi Arik Ascherman, founder of Rabbis for Human Rights.

We have come to this point because we have not yet reckoned with the full meaning of Rabin’s assassination. We have not come to terms with the fact that Jews are just as susceptible to the temptations and abuses of power and violence as any other nation. We have not healed the trauma of Rabin’s murder, and so the wound has festered. Rabin’s twentieth yahrzeit demands that we not only look outward, toward Israel’s neighbors, enemies, and potential partners, but also inward. If we wish to do justice to Rabin, Jews everywhere must account for our collective responsibility; if we merely throw up our hands in resignation, we tacitly accept a status quo that is morally unacceptable. Those who wished for Israel to be a normal country, like any other, got what they wanted: a country where an intelligent young law student could decide it made sense to put two bullets in the Prime Minister’s back, where, increasingly, might makes right and Jewish terrorists visit self-declared vengeance upon sleeping Palestinian children. Those of us who love Israel, who identify as Zionists, must heed Rav Lichtenstein: “It is indefensible that one who is willing to take credit when the sun is shining should shrug off responsibility when it begins to rain.” If we love Israel for its great technological achievements, for its humanitarian assistance to people around the world, for its rich culture and deep history, then we can not brush aside its shortcomings. It’s time we insist that Israel become a country unlike any other — a society that delivers justice for all people, regardless of religion or ethnicity; a society that places human dignity first, above all other considerations; a society where the ends are not allowed to justify immoral means; a society willing to face, head-on, the implications of the Rabin assassination, and begin to heal.


[1]  Gen. 22:2.
[2] Gen. 21:9
[3] Perhaps significantly, five of the seven occurrences are in Genesis and two in the present parshah. In addition to Gen. 21:9, see Gen. 19:14, 26:8, 39:14, and 39:17; Ex. 32:6; and Judges 16:25.
[4]  Gen. 26:8 and the two uses in Gen. 39.
[5] It is important to note that the “social morality” is contextual and does not necessarily reflect the Torah’s own view of morality; the people of Sodom view Lot as מְצַחֵֽק when he protects his guests, since this goes against their own social mores — despite the fact that the Torah itself clearly approves of Lot’s behavior. Samson is the hardest example to square with this theory, but perhaps he was forced to act in a degrading manner before the Philistine crowds; alternatively, in this case the narrator expressing disapproval for what the philistines found entertaining.
[6] Gen. 21:11.

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