Before it is too late

Before it is too late

Many eyes in Israel, it seems, were focused on Rimonim prison in the Sharon on Sunday, as the brit ceremony for Yigal Amir’s son was taking place and where dozens of demonstrators were gathered outside — some supporting the man who murdered Yitzchak Rabin 1′ years ago and some condemning him.

Those eyes, however, should have been inside Kiryat Eliezer stadium, where Maccabi Haifa was hosting the first-place Beitar Jerusalem soccer team. "Twelve years ago today," the stadium’s announcer began, "Yitzhak Rabin was murdered." Suddenly, from the Beitar Jerusalem stands came a large and growing chant, "Yigal! Amir! Yigal! Amir!"

That incident should be an eye-opener for Israeli society and for Jews everywhere. A recent poll showed that ‘6 percent of Israelis — more than half of whom come from the non-religious sector — support the call to free Amir in eight years’ time, after he has served ‘0 years of his life sentence.

It seems that we still do not fully comprehend the nature of the calamity that struck the Jewish people on the 1’th of Marcheshvan, 5756, nor do we understand where it can lead.

Before I go on, though, some things must be said. First, Yigal Amir’s son is not Yigal Amir. The Torah itself forbids blaming the children for the crimes of their fathers (see Deuteronomy ‘4:16) and that must be sacrosanct. Second, other prisoners have family visitations; to have denied one in this case would violate every principle of equity that a democracy must espouse. There was nothing wrong with allowing the brit to take place inside Rimonim prison; there was something outrageously wrong with the media’s turning it into a "breaking news" event, just as they did the occasion of Amir’s first conjugal visit with his wife. Yes, there was a court case seeking to block the ceremony from being inside the prison, but the coverage went far beyond that. The media — and forces on Israel’s left — were what turned it into a national cause celebre.

Back to the main topic. People die by violence every day. These are tragic events, and, in the case of great leaders or the potentially great, we are often left to wonder "what if."

What if Sirhan Sirhan had not shot Bobby Kennedy? Would we have had to endure the trauma of the Vietnam War for four more years?

Would we have had our naivet? shattered by Watergate — an event that caused our political system to sink to the low level of repute and respect it now suffers?

We have no idea. A leader dies and the future is surely changed, but life goes on.

Yitzhak Rabin’s murder was different, however. His murder was not like most political assassinations. It was like only one — the murder of a man named Gedaliah Ben Achikam nearly ‘,600 years ago.

Was Gedaliah a good man or a bad man? A Jewish patriot or a Jewish traitor? We do not really know. We know he was the man the Babylonians put in charge of Judah after the fall of the First Temple and the vanquishing of the line of David. We think he came from a family devoted to the kings of Judah and may have served in an official capacity while the kingdom still existed. We think he was devoted to the God of Israel and His people.

We think, but we do not know.

All we know for certain is that somewhere around ‘,580 years ago, a religious fanatic named Yishmael ben Netanyahu murdered Gedaliah ben Achikam, ostensibly in the name of God.

And we know something else. When Gedaliah was murdered, life did not "go on" for the Jews. His murder began a process that, within five years, led to our expulsion from our homeland, and the beginning of an exile that, for most of us, continues to this day.

It is for this reason that, long before the rabbis came into existence, the people of Israel — in other words, all of us — already marked the day of that murder by fasting and prayer. To this day, the third of Tishrei, the day after Rosh HaShanah, is known as Tsom Gedaliah, the Fast of Gedaliah.

For good reason do we fast. By all rights, our story should have come to an end when the Babylonian exile began. Everything we were was rooted in the land — our identity, our culture, our sacred traditions, our modes of worship. Other people, faced with a similar fate, disappeared from history. Gedaliah’s murder should have led to our extinction.

Yet we survived. We had Jeremiah and Ezekiel and Zechariah and many people whose names we do not know — prophets of God and men of vision who were filled with Ahavat Yisrael, love of their people Israel. They would not let us shrivel and die.

And, so, we did not die.

As it was with the murder of Gedaliah ben Achikam, so it was with the murder of Yitzhak ben Nechemiah.

The history of another century may, God-forbid, look back on the 1’th of Marcheshvan 5756 and see that this tragic day began an equally tragic process that will be mourned for thousands of years to come — assuming, that is, that there will be any of us left to mourn. For today, there is no Jeremiah, there is no Ezekiel. There are no visionary leaders who can rise above their individual beliefs to turn tragedy into triumph.

And yet, the tragedy of that day 1′ years ago can become a catalyst for change. The gun that killed Rabin need not be the starter pistol for disaster. First, however, all of us must be willing to let go of our arrogance and our triumphalism.

All of us must be willing to admit that no one of us has all the answers, and that the answers coming from the other are as valid as our own.

Arrogance and triumphalism led one Jew to kill another in the name of God, and who and what we are as a people were shaken to the core. Arrogance and triumphalism may yet lead another Jew to kill another Jewish prime minister, also in the name of God.

Before it is too late, all of us must recognize that Judaism is not one thing or the other; Judaism is everything together. It is religion; it is nationality; it is a values and ethics system; it is a way of living; it is an approach to God. It is the strict constructionism of Shammai and the reformist liberalism of Hillel.

We are not Reform Jews or Orthodox ones. We are not right-wing Jews or left-wing ones. We are not Peace Now Jews or Peace Never Jews.

We are Jews, period. We need to start acting that way and the way to begin is by listening to each other.

Shammai Engelmayer is rabbi of the Conservative synagogue Temple Israel Community Center in Cliffside Park and an instructor in the UJA-Federation-sponsored Florence Melton Adult Mini-School of the Hebrew University. He is the editor of Judaism: A Journal of Jewish Life and Thought.