On Yom Kippur, I reflected on my experience in Israel 20 years ago when the country went through the trauma of the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin. While Rabin’s yahrzeit already passed several days ago, this week marks the secular anniversary on November 4. Furthermore, President Bill Clinton in his eulogy of Rabin cited the very Torah portion that we read today, Parashat Vayera. President Clinton said:
This week, Jews all around the world are studying the Torah portion in which God tests the faith of Abraham, patriarch of the Jews and the Arabs. He commands Abraham to sacrifice Yitzhak. “Take your son, the one you love, Yitzhak.” As we all know, as Abraham, in loyalty to God, was about to kill his son, God spared Yitzhak.
Now God tests our faith even more terribly, for he has taken our Yitzhak. But Israel’s covenant with God for freedom, for tolerance, for security, for peace — that covenant must hold. That covenant was Prime Minister Rabin’s life’s work. Now we must make it his lasting legacy. His spirit must live on in us.
The Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for mourning, never speaks of death, but often speaks of peace. In its closing words, may our hearts find a measure of comfort and our souls, the eternal touch of hope.
“Oseh shalom bimromav, hu ya’ase shalom aleinu, ve-al kol Israel, ve-imru, amen.”
On this twentieth anniversary of Rabin’s assassination, official memorials are taking place, including one tomorrow in Rabin Square in Tel Aviv at which Bill Clinton will be present. Yet, it seems that reflections on the Rabin assassination is rather subdued in the Jewish public square. Yehudah Kurtzer of the Hartman Institute suggests in an op-ed three reasons for the muted commemorations:
- If Rabin’s assassination was a cautionary tale on the dangers of Jewish fundamentalism, its message has not been sufficiently heeded, particularly in the last year in which Jews have carried out horrific acts of violence.
- Rabin’s political legacy is complex. We will never know what would have happened if he had lived. Given where we are now, it seems Pollyannaish that he would have completed a peace deal and brought about the elusive two-state solution.
- The biggest obstacle to Rabin’s memory is that many Jews very reasonably have little appetite right now for the self-flagellation involved with a commemoration of Rabin. As Israel’s citizens are under attack, many of the country’s supporters feel that Israel’s primary enemies are from without and not from within. They argue that empathy with a society under attack dictates solidarity with the people rather than the bitter surfacing of a memory that signaled that society’s failure. If remembering Rabin is about signaling that we can be our own worst enemies, that message is hard for us to hear today. Rabin’s legacy, in other words, is hijacked both by the complicated political reality he left behind, and by the dominant lesson of his death as a warning about Jew-on-Jew violence. Rabin’s memory may be lost because it arises at an inconvenient time, or because it is thought to be a failure.
Just as Bill Clinton framed Rabin’s legacy 20 years ago through the lenses of Parashat Vayera, we can do the same. The portion continues the story of Abraham and the dramatic accounts of how the father of our nation welcomed angels into his tent, argued with God over the justice of destroying Sodom and Gomorrah, the birth of Isaac in his and Sarah’s old age, the expulsion of Hagar and Ishmael and the binding of Isaac. We see Abraham as a great hero, yet one with human flaws. He and the other patriarchs and matriarchs are at once larger than life and very approachable. For centuries, people have attempted to get inside the minds of our ancestors and speculate on the details of their experiences and what they must have thought at the time. The art of Midrash is the attempt to have a conversation with the Biblical narrative and to imagine ourselves in the situations described.
Yehuda Amichai, the great Israeli poet who died in 2000, completed his last collection of poetry shortly before he died in a book titled “Open Closed Open.” Though he identified as a secular Israeli, much of his poetry, particularly in this volume, discusses Biblical figures and religious issues. Abraham and the story of the Binding of Isaac appear multiple times. The following poem is an example of the poet’s attempt to enter the minds of our ancestors and imagine them reflecting with nostalgia on the traumatic events of the Akeidah.
Taken from “Open Closed Open” by Yehuda Amichai
Every year our father Abraham takes his sons to Mount Moriah, the same way that I take my children to the Negev hills where my war took place.
Abraham walks with his sons: this is where I left the servants, that’s where I tied the ass to the tree at the foot of the hill, and here, right at this spot, you asked me, Isaac my son: Here is the fire and the wood but where is the lamb for the sacrifice? A little further up you asked me again.
When they reached the top of the mountain they rested awhile and ate
And drank, and he showed them the thicket where the ram was caught by its horns.
And when Abraham died, Isaac took his sons to the same spot.
“Here I lifted up the wood and that’s where I stopped for breath, this is where I asked my father and he replied, God will provide the lamb for the sacrifice, and that’s where I knew that it was me.”
And when Isaac became blind his sons brought him to that same Mount Moriah and described to him in words
All those things that he may already have forgotten.
In this poem, Abraham behaves like we might behave visiting a historic site while on vacation, particularly while visiting places of battle. The poet likens Abraham to generations of Israelis who would often visit battle sites with a sense of nostalgia. We also see the contrast between generations. Abraham has his set of memories when he revisits the site with Isaac. But when Isaac takes his sons there, he remembers things differently. He acknowledges that while Abraham did not fully answer his question about where was the sacrifice, he understood that he was the intended sacrifice. Then, Isaac revisits the site years later when he is blind, perhaps a symbol of blocking out a memory that was too painful for him.
Amichai’s interpretation of the Akeidah is told from different perspectives. Similarly, this week we approach the memory of Yitzhak Rabin from different perspectives: what was, what is and what might have been. I believe many of us hold all three of these thoughts and memories of Rabin simultaneously. Abraham and Isaac were not perfect, and neither was Rabin.
On this 20th anniversary of Rabin’s assassination, I yearn for religious and political leaders who, like Rabin, are willing to take risks for positive change and who continue to envision a better future with both sincerity and pragmatism. This is how I choose to remember Rabin twenty years later.
To conclude, the Psalmist says (122:6):
ו שַׁאֲלוּ שְׁלוֹם יְרוּשָׁלָם יִשְׁלָיוּ אֹהֲבָיִךְ: ז … ח לְמַעַן־אַחַי וְרֵעָי אֲדַבְּרָה־נָּא שָׁלוֹם בָּךְ: ט לְמַעַן בֵּית־יְהֹוָה אֱלֹהֵינוּ אֲבַקְשָׁה טוֹב לָךְ:
Pray for the peace of Jerusalem; they who love the Lord shall prosper…For the sake of my brothers and sisters, I will now say Peace be within you. For the sake of the house of the Lord our God I will seek your goodness.