On the Assassination of Prime Minister Rabin z"l

  • Harav Aharon Lichtenstein

           [1] I spoke last week in Teaneck, referring to the funeral of Sara in this week's parsha, Chayei Sara. Avraham spoke of "hesped" and of "bekhi" - of eulogy and weeping. Hesped relates to the past, to an assessment of the individual, his personality and his achievements; bekhi to the sorrow and the pain of the present. There, I tried to do both. Here, for people who are far more familiar with the facts, and where there are others, like Rav Amital, who knew the Prime Minister better, I will leave out the hesped and go straight to the bekhi.

            There are many reasons to cry, to mourn. First, we must not lose sight of the personal aspect: the family's loss, even when there is a national, public aspect. The first and most immediate loss is suffered by those closest to the deceased. Nevertheless, for us, the public side is the most important. Here, we have undoubtedly suffered a grievous loss. It is rare to find someone with such a level of leadership: the combination of military background and over twenty years of political statesmanship, and the ability to lead and inspire confidence, to steer a course in turbulent and dangerous waters towards a shore whose safety is itself questionable.
 
            Aside from this, there is a special source of worry for those to whom the settlement of Yehuda and Shomron is important. This is paradoxical, since the fiercest opposition to his leadership arose from precisely those ranks. It is clear, though, that within his government, Yitzhak Rabin was he who more than anyone else cared for and protected the settlements, and hence will be missed by us, more than by others, for just this reason. But even more, within the issue of the peace process there is importance not just to what is given back, but also to how it is given back - not just to the contents of policy, but to how it is carried out. In this respect, objectively speaking, if we rise above the opposition to the policy, Rabin was the proponent of this policy as a necessary compromise; with pain, with real feeling for the nature of the loss, more than anyone else involved in the process. This was not, perhaps, to the extent we would have liked, but nonetheless, he had a real feeling for the values we hold. Recently, out of frustration and in the heat of the argument, he made several statements which expressed disregard for the value of Eretz Yisrael, which I am sure he regretted afterwards. Nonetheless, in summary, his genuine feeling for our values will be missed by all of us, whether we support territorial compromise or not.
 
            All this would be true if he had died naturally. The circumstances of his cold-blooded murder, though, are a source of great pain and distress for us. Last week I visited mori ve-rabi Harav Aharon Soloveitchik shlit"a, whose fierce opposition to the peace process is well-known. As soon as I walked in, he repeated over and over - "A badge of shame, a badge of shame." For two days, he hadn't slept, out of shame and humiliation. This shame - that our state, our people, should have fallen to such a level, should be felt by everyone: religious, secular, right and left. For to the extent that we feel any sense of unity within Am Yisrael, to the extent that we feel like a single body, then the entire body should feel shamed and pained no matter which limb is responsible for this tragedy. 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. Coming from a "deprived" background, he studied in a Yeshiva High School, attended a great Yeshivat Hesder, and was accepted to the most prestigious division of Bar-Ilan University. Today, we hide behind the phrases, "a wild weed," "from the outskirts of our society." 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. Let us face our responsibility - not defensively, but as Chazal would see it. I cite words which are so terrible that it frightens me to say them. I am not saying that we should apply them literally, but let us examine how Chazal see such things and what is their standard of responsibility.
 
            Concerning one who worships the Molekh, the verse states, "I shall put my face against that man and his family."[2] The Gemara asks, "If he sinned, did his family sin? This teaches you that there is no family that includes an extortionist where they are not all extortionists, and none that includes a robber where they are not all robbers - because they protect him."[3]
 
            Let us not fool ourselves: to a great extent, we are all his family. Protection is not only after the fact, but also before; not only cover-up, but also nourishment and support. Can we honestly say that what the murderer did was "despite" his education, in the same way that some yeshiva graduates are no longer Shabbat-observers? In that case it is clear that the choice is "despite" the education. Is not here the choice, at least partly, not "despite" but "because?"
 
            The gemara in Yoma (23a-b) relates:
 
It happened once that two kohanim were running evenly up the ramp [of the altar in the Temple, in order to be first and thus be the one to perform the sacrificial service of the day]. One of them intruded within the four cubits of the other. He drew a knife and plunged it into his heart. R. Zadok stood on the steps of the Sanctuary and said: My brothers, the House of Israel, pay heed! It is written, 'If one be found slain in the land [and it is not known who the killer is]...your elders and judges shall go out...[and the elders of the town nearest the corpse shall...break a heifer's neck... and wash their hands...and declare: 'Our hands did not shed this blood...'] (Devarim. 21:1-9).' In our case, who should bring the egla arufa (broken-necked heifer), the city or the azarot (Temple courtyards)? And the people burst out crying. The father of the [slain] youth came and found him in his death-throes. He said, 'May he be your atonement - my son is yet in his death-throes and the knife is not yet defiled!' This teaches us that ritual purity was more serious in their eyes than bloodshed. And thus it is written (Melakhim II 21:16), 'And also Menashe spilled very much innocent blood, until Jerusalem was filled from end to end.'[4]
 
            The gemara proceeds to ask: we know that egla arufa is not brought in Jerusalem, so what room is there for R. Zadok's question? Furthermore, is not egla arufa brought only in a case where we don't know who the murderer is? Here we all know - the deed was done in public! The answer is, R. Zadok said this "in order to increase the weeping." Is the gemara suggesting that R. Zadok distorted the law for emotional effect? No! R. Zadok is making a point. The principle behind egla arufa is collective guilt. When there is a known murderer, then on a technical-legal level, he takes the guilt. If not, it is attached to the whole city, to the community, to the elders. Collective guilt is not established in order to remove or excuse individual responsibility; family, society, upbringing and climate do not remove personal guilt. Jewish tradition insists on personal responsibility. But egla arufa teaches that there is another level - that beyond the individual guilt, there also is a level of collective guilt.
 
            One priest stabbed the other. Do the other priests say, "He was just a wild weed which somehow sprouted in our midst," and return to their everyday pursuits? Do they say, "He was a lone madman," and go home? R. Zadok is saying that this act wasn't despite us; this was, partially, because. Did the kohen kill because he rejected sanctity and opposed the service in the Temple, or rather precisely because of his passion and love for the service of God? God forbid that we should say that his teachers taught him that killing another human being is an acceptable way of expressing devotion to God. But they were undoubtedly responsible for emphasizing one side - the importance of competitiveness, of devotion, of striving and commitment, of zeal and ardor, without sufficiently emphasizing the corresponding importance of brotherhood, love, and respect, which must accompany the honest, pure, good, holy and exalted desire to serve God.
 
            The gemara proceeds to relate that the father of the victim, himself a priest, demanded the removal of the sacrificial knife before his son was completely dead, in order to prevent its ritual defilement. "The purity of the knife was more important to them than murder." The gemara (23b) understands that there is an educational imbalance here and asks - did they overvalue ritual purity or undervalue the sanctity of life? Where was the educational flaw? The conclusion is that it was human life that they failed sufficiently to value, and not that they exaggerated the value of ritual purity.
 
            In any event, and in either case, the youth was dead, and R. Zadok stands and says - we have educated properly for some religious values, but in the end, this is murder. Don't fool yourselves into thinking that this is a case of "one wild weed," that the murderer is known and bears all responsibility by himself. What has this to do with egla arufa? Even when technically the murderer is known, the principle of egla arufa still applies, because his actions derive from something we taught or failed to teach.
 
            R. Zadok asked, "Who will bring the egla arufa - the city or the azarot (temple courtyards)?" - and the people couldn't answer, but burst out crying. What is the meaning of "city" and "azarot?"
 
            The murderer draws from two environments, two frameworks. One, wide and encompassing, is the city - society as a whole, verbal violence in the Knesset and wife-murder in the home, the lack of tolerance and a sense of arrogance. But R. Zadok was honest and moral enough to know that perhaps we cannot blame only the community at large. Perhaps we must also blame the Temple courtyards, the environment of the Priests and Levites, the environs of holiness and sanctity. Why did the people burst out in tears? Not because they didn't know which environment is responsible, but rather because they all knew, instinctively and intuitively, that the real answer is both - and neither can avoid responsibility.
 
            There are many of us for whom it is convenient to sever the connection of the city and the azara. The city is them: television, decadent music, pub-culture, and corruption; the azarot are us. To some extent, this is true. There does exist an element in general culture which is the opposite of Jewish values, which sees itself, today more than ever, as engaged in a campaign to uproot and destroy anything with a glimmer of holiness. But God forbid that we should try, or even want, to detach azara from city. There are some of us who rejoice at every chance to point out the drugs, the prostitution, or the violence in the wider community, so we can say, "Look at the difference between US and THEM" - look at the statistics, look at Dizengoff, look at their family lives. But remember - the people on Dizengoff aren't foreigners; they are our flesh and blood. It is our city and it should hurt; it cannot be a source of joy, of satisfaction, of self-congratulation and gloating. We should cry over the lack of values. And if, indeed, part of what has happened is the result of the culture of the city - and I think this is undoubtedly so - we are also part of the city, and we too must take part in the city's egla arufa.
 
            There is, of course, a difference between the city and the azara. We see ourselves - justly! justly! - as residents specifically of the azara, the keepers of the flame. But that is precisely why we have a special responsibility, because part of the zeal of that kohen who murdered comes from his also having been a resident of the azara, from his desire to be first to the altar. Therefore, beyond our responsibility to bring an egla arufa as members of the city, we must also bring an egla arufa specifically as members of the azara. It is no wonder, then, that all the people burst out in tears.
 
            One may ask, but what is wrong with our values? We try to educate people to strive for holiness, to love Eretz Yisrael, Am Yisrael, Torat Yisrael - shall we, then, stop adhering to and teaching these values? Shall we abandon the azara? God forbid! Not the azara, not the ezrat nashim, not the heikhal, surely not the Holy of Holies, not Har ha-Bayit, not one rung of the ten rungs of holiness of Eretz Yisrael. But if we indeed strive for completeness, if we want to adhere to all these values, then we must at all times keep in mind the whole picture, the balance and interplay between these values. Have we done enough to ensure that our approach to each aspect of our sacred values is balanced? Perhaps even if we have indeed taught the evil of bloodshed - we have exaggerated, as that terrible gemara suggests, the value of ritual purity.
 
            There are several points I would suggest as worthy of reflection. First: the self-confidence that arises from commitment and devotion to a world of values and eternal truths - whether in terms of Torat Yisrael or Eretz Yisrael - sometimes has led to frightening levels of self-certainty and ultimately to arrogance. This arrogance has sometimes led us to act without sufficient responsibility towards other people, and at times even without responsibility to other values. "We are good, we have values, and they are worthless" - this attitude has seeped deeper and deeper into our consciousness.
 
            Secondly, at times we have promoted simplicity and shallowness. Pragmatically, this has a greater chance of success than teaching complexity and deliberation. A simple direct message, appealing to one emotion and calling "After me!" will have more followers than the injunction to think, consider, analyze and investigate. Uncomplicated directives excite more passion than a balanced and complex approach, which confronts questions of competing spiritual values and of competing national interests. Because we wanted our youth to strive, to run up the altar, we not only promoted simplistic slogans, but also a simplistic lifestyle. Once, shocked to my core, I walked out of a meeting of religious educators where a teacher said that although we know that the Ramban and the Rambam disagree about the nature of the mitzva to settle the Land of Israel, we must keep this information to ourselves, lest we lower the enthusiasm of our youth and dampen their fervor. Here we aren't delegitimating Dizengoff; we are delegitimating the Rambam!
 
            Third, sometimes we taught our students to belittle and suspect others. One who doesn't agree with us is criminal, not merely mistaken. Any opportunity to credit a public leader with good intention was rejected in order to credit him with alienation, with hostility, with malice - not a suspicion of evil, but a certainty! From this way of thinking, horrible things can result.
 
            In Parashat Shofetim, we read, "If there be a man who hates his fellow and he ambushed him and rose against him and mortally struck him and he died."[5] On this verse, the Sifrei states:
Based on this, it is said: If a man transgresses a minor precept, he will eventually transgress a major one... If he transgresses 'You shall love your fellow as yourself,' he will eventually transgress 'You shall not hate' and 'You shall not revenge'...until he finally spills blood.[6]
 
            From a sin of the heart, an attitude, from not enough love, Chazal see a straight path to the ultimate sin of murder.
 
            I am not coming to delegitimate our entire educational system or ideology - it certainly contains much that is wonderful. But I do mean to say that we cannot claim that this murderer was a "wild weed": we must bring an egla arufa on behalf of the azarot as well.
 
            The awesome, difficult question is - And now, what? Should we close the azarot, abandon our values? On my way back, I met Rav Eichler (a journalist from the Belz Charedi newspaper). He asked me whether I do not think that what happened - and he is genuinely shocked - is a result of an educational system which teaches that there are things of more value than human life. I answered, we all believe that - it is in the Shulchan Arukh. "Yehareg ve-al ya'avor" means that there are values greater than human life. The question is what is the balance: what are the halakhic, hashkafic and moral  values which enable us to know when and how. In this sense, we need not be ashamed, nor need we erase one letter of our Torah. We will not surrender to any city, nor abandon a single one of our values. Our values are eternal; nothing can be given up or erased. But in terms of balance and application, of seeing the whole picture, of the development of the ability to think profoundly in order to know how to apply the Torah - here, undoubtedly, we must engage in a renewed and deeper examination. Priorities must be re-examined.
 
            The same gemara in Yoma tells that there was another incident in the Temple which led them to change their procedures. Despite R. Zadok's speech, they hesitated about instituting a different procedure. But after a later incident, where one kohen knocked another off the ramp, and the second one broke his leg, they realized that something was wrong with the system itself. They no longer said, "An exceptional case cannot change ancient practice." They instituted a new procedure, using a lottery to determine who should perform the Temple service.
 
            Why didn't they do this right away, after the murder? The answer is simple. Ideally, which procedure is better - giving the prize to one who runs, strives, and makes the effort due to his commitment to values and to service, or the use of a lottery, without pursuit, without struggle, a simple mechanical system? Clearly, the old system is better: more educational, more imbued with value. But after a murder, "seeing it could lead to danger," Chazal abandoned the method of individual initiative and competition, fully aware of the considerable educational loss, but willing to pay that price. Even things which are better in principle must be sacrificed if that is what is necessary to prevent terrible consequences.
 
            I don't know what is the precise equivalent for us. But the process of examining the azara, of the problems which arise not despite its holiness but because of its holiness - that is clearly mandated. Not our principles, but surely our analysis of public policy and public needs, needs to be re-examined.
 
            In 1978, Shimon Peres visited the Yeshiva. He asked me what the political credo of the Yeshiva was. I told him the Yeshiva has no political credo, but we teach three things:
 
            1. Even when sitting in the bet midrash, you have a responsibility to the community;
            2. When addressing these problems, you have to think deeply and not simplistically;
            3. Even when doing what is right, you have to know how to respect other opinions and the people who hold them.
 
            This has to be our educational goal. The question is not just what are the particular values we hold, but through which spectacles we view values, through which eyes. A man, said Blake, doesn't see with his eyes but rather through his eyes. What sees is the mind.
 
            Finally, there is another facet to what we have been discussing, which relates to our community and leadership.
 
            Leaving out for now the question of individuals - who said what - we must remember the principle of the gemara in Shabbat:
 
Anyone who can rebuke the members of his household and doesn't do so is culpable for [the acts of] his household; [if he can rebuke] his townspeople, is culpable for his townspeople; the whole world - he is culpable for the whole world.[7]
 
            Everyone should tally his own accounts in this respect, but I am not wrong if I say that for all of us the degree of rebuke, of protest was not sufficient; for some, because they did not evaluate the evil properly, for others because they were not willing to publicize wrong when they feared our opponents could use it to attack our whole system. The point of Chazal remains the same; their terrible words carry the same force in either case. That they could have protested and did not - this carries a particular responsibility beyond the "city," perhaps even beyond the "azarot."
 
            We are today in a very difficult situation, partly practical, partly metaphysical. Practically, our struggle for our values within society has suffered a mortal blow. Among ourselves, there is a shocking atmosphere. Yesterday, the sight of armed guards in the Yeshiva, accompanying R. Yoel Bin-Nun, was shocking. Why was it shocking? I remember the gemara describing how the Kohen Gadol on Yom Kippur was suspected of being a Sadducee, a heretic - and both he and his accusers wept: he because he was suspect, his accusers because they lived in a world where such suspicions were necessary. Sadder than the sight of bodyguards in the Yeshiva was the knowledge that we live in a world where it is necessary. The transformation from a healthy, organic, trusting society, a society of azarot, to one sundered by suspicions is an awful and terrifying one.
 
            Let me read a few lines from the Ramban in Acharei Mot. The verse states: "From your seed you shall not give to pass before the Molekh and you shall not desecrate the name of your God."[8] The Ramban explains:
 
The verse states that the worship of the Molekh is a desecration of God's name and in the next parsha, it is added that it 'defiles My holy place and desecrates My holy name.' The reason may be that it defiles the people who are hallowed in My name... Perhaps it means that one who sacrifices to the Molekh, and subsequently comes to the Temple of God to bring a sacrifice, defiles the Temple, for his sacrifices are defiled and an abomination to God, and he himself is defiled eternally, as he has been defiled by the evil he did.... It mentions desecration of God's name because when the nations hear that he has given his children to the Molekh and an animal to God, this is desecration of God's name.
 
            There is not only chillul Ha-Shem (desecration of God's name) as reflected in what others say, in our sullied public image, but also intrinsically, because (as it were) God is not complete and His name is not complete if there is bloodshed in Israel.
 
            Today we must, out of the crisis, assume an educational and ideological task. Someone may say, "The Rosh Yeshiva says that azarot can lead to bloodshed - let's close the azarot!! Let us abandon the Mikdash!" I say, no! We will not close a single azara, nor will we encourage tepid and unenthusiastic service. The challenge is, can we continue to inspire the yearning for sanctity, shake people out of complacency, get them to face the great call of the hour - to understand the importance of the Medina, to understand the historical process in which we live - without losing a sense of morality, of proportion, of right, of spirituality? Do we have to choose between azarot and morality? Chas ve-shalom! But we must purify our hearts and our camp in order to serve Him in truth.
 
            About ten years ago, after the disclosure of the existence of the "Jewish Underground," I spoke about the role of the Levites. I said then and I say now: the Levi'im had a double role. On the one hand, their job was to educate, to inspire, to open eyes and arouse hearts to the service of God and its ecstasy. At the same time, they were the guards at the Temple doors, forbidding entry to the unqualified, not letting one enter where one cannot, setting up boundaries. On the one hand, they called everyone to the Temple, and at the same time, they themselves pressed on the brakes. We are Levi'im - we must call a great and large company for this endeavor. We must not divide by saying" "I saw and warned and you were silent." This sort of pettiness must be placed aside. We have to build a wide, secure base that can allow all Levites, all who are committed to the city and the azarot, to conjoin in the great effort to ensure that the light of the azarot shines onto the city.
 
            This is very hard, ten times harder now than before the murder. But anything less will be a betrayal of our obligations and our rights, in this holy hour. May we purify our hearts and our camp, and through a spiritual and Torah-inspired effort, attempt to purify and to sanctify, to the greatest extent possible, our city and our society.
 
            "She-netaher et libeinu ve-et machaneinu, u-mitokh ma'amatz ruchani ve-Torani, nishaf le-taher u-lekadesh, ad kama she-efshar, et ireinu."
 
 

[1].   This sicha was given by Harav Lichtenstein to Yeshivat Har Etzion on Monday, 20 Cheshvan 5756 (November 13, 1995). It has been translated and adapted by Rabbi Ezra Bick and Rabbi Ronnie Ziegler. Rav Lichtenstein had been in the United States during the week of the Prime Minister's murder, and this day, nine days after the assassination, was his first opportunity to address the Yeshiva.
[2].   Vayikra 20:5.
[3].   Shevuot 39a.
[4].   Yoma 23a-b.
[5].   Devarim 19:11.
[6].   Shofetim 43.
[7].   Shabbat 54b.
[8].   Vayikra 18:21.