Learning from the Matter: Our Fallen Leaders

Nov 22, 2013 by

Learning from the Matter: Our Fallen Leaders

Mine is a strange relation to the tragic 50th anniversary we commemorate today, because I was not alive the day John Kennedy died.  I came into this world a decade later, and when I was finally ready to learn about the 1960’s, I studied as one unit the assassinations of three national leaders: the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Robert Kennedy, and John F. Kennedy.  November 22nd is not a date that sticks in my memory, as I do not belong to that generation that heard reports on radios and then steered cars to the curb with tear-filled eyes.  I carry mental images of Kennedy’s children at Arlington National Cemetery, but would have been hard-pressed (until recently) to remember even in which month this tragedy occurred.

November 4th, 1995: that date I remember very well.  We had just bid farewell to Shabbat in Jerusalem, and before hitting the still-opening city, some friends and I gathered in my sixth-floor apartment.  Before we walked out the door, the phone rang.  I was shocked to hear the voice of a friend who had just returned to the States the previous week.  “What’s going on over there?” he demanded.  When I reported it was just an average Saturday night, he cut right through: “Seth, didn’t you hear the news?  Yitzhak Rabin was just shot at a peace rally in Tel Aviv.”

We are in a month of remembrance for fallen leaders, for symbols of a better tomorrow who were shot down in their prime.  Today we mark the 50th anniversary of the assassination of an American President; earlier this month we marked a significant 18 years since an Israeli Prime Minister was murdered after singing a song of peace.  We are in a season where we confront continuous violence and base hatred.  We risk doing dishonor to our dead if we memorialize their passing with only words of sadness and regret, without doing the difficult work of learning the lessons of these tragedies.

I can only share a single story.  I lived in Jerusalem in the fall of 1995, when Israel’s election season was in full swing.  On my daily walk through downtown streets on my way to the Hebrew Union College, I saw almost every empty wall plastered with posters: for Labor, for Likud, against Likud, against Labor, and—of course—with the positions and politicians of every other party.  Some of these political posters were remarkably troubling: Yitzhak Rabin against giant letters declaring him a “TRAITOR”, Rabin’s face superimposed over the infamous keffiyeh of Yasser Arafat, and—most painfully and inexplicably—the elected Prime Minister of the State of Israel dressed as a member of the Nazi SS.

UnknownSuch base hatred sickened me.  Yet, I remember well, it seemed par for the course for Israeli discourse, especially regarding politics.  The days after Rabin was killed, I remember Israel was—almost to a person—in shock that the assassin was Jewish.  It was simply inconceivable to Israelis that a Jew could perpetrate a heinous crime against a Jew.  “Why,” I recall thinking, “Are so many Israelis surprised?  Had they not seen the literal signs?  When an elected government official can not only be called a traitor but also labeled a Nazi, when such hate is fomented on such a widespread scale, what other outcome could have been predicted but this?”

This week’s Torah portion, Vayeishev, tells a similar cautionary tale of unchecked antipathy.  We are familiar with the famous story of Joseph the dreamer, who regales his brothers with visions of how he will one day rule over them; we also know this leads to his brothers’ conspiracy to sell Joseph into slavery, to deceive their family into thinking he died.  Often lost in this saga is the pivotal role played by a silent bystander: Jacob.  We read in Genesis 37:11 that: [Joseph’s] brothers became jealous of him, and his father observed the matter.  On first glance, the meaning of the verse is obvious: Jacob does nothing about the growing and apparent enmity between his children.  Various commentators, favorable to Jacob, have tried to mitigate this passivity: Saadiah Gaon claims he “entered the matter into his memory”, as if to do something about this strife in the future; Rashi reads the second half of this verse against its context and hints that Jacob was ignorant of the discord in his home.

Jacob’s silence in the face of growing hatred was a contributing factor to the enslavement and imprisonment of his favorite son.  His guilt is not on the level of Judah, who negotiated the sale, or the other brothers who were willing accomplices. However, it seems clear to me that Jacob bears responsibility for failing to try and mitigate a remarkably hostile situation.  Likewise, only one assassin killed Yitzhak Rabin.  While those who helped create and foster that hate didn’t have their fingers on the trigger, they are nonetheless accessories to the crime.  And, as we learn from the story of Jacob’s stony silence, those of us who literally walked through Israel’s environment of animosity on a daily basis—and could pretty well guess where it might lead—are not without blame ourselves.

Those who fan the flames of hatred bear responsibility for the ultimate incarnation of the hostility they generate.  But those who stand by idly while they watch temperatures boil, in my opinion, need to bring themselves to account as well.  I cannot comment on the killing of Kennedy; that was not my time.  But as we—on this 50th anniversary of his life being stolen—gather to learn the lessons of painful assassinations, we should examine the epidemic of enmity in our world today, and figure out how we make sure we do not replicate Jacob’s sin of keeping silent.  On this day of sad memorial, let us work to unsure there will be fewer days of sad memory for our children and grandchildren.  Let us commit to counter the culture of ceaseless hatred that threatens to unravel the very fabric of our civilized society.

Rabbi Seth M. Limmer is rabbi of 
Congregation B’nai Yisrael of Armonk, New York.  

 

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