Twenty years ago, shortly before the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination, an Israeli friend of mine, Rafi Sela, a security expert, was called to Rabin’s office and asked to prepare a confidential report regarding some people around Rabin he did not trust. The day before Rabin was to attend a huge rally for peace in Tel Aviv, Rafi told him he was worried that they could not protect him in such a large crowd. Rafi wrote in an email to me, “He smiled his shy smile and said, ‘Do not worry I will outlive even you…’”
How wrong Rabin was. He was killed scheduled at that rally the next day: November 4, 1995.
During shiva at the Rabin house, Rafi ran into former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. Sharon was Rabin’s bitter political opponent, but the two shared an ironic and close personal friendship. Sharon got up to hug Rafi and said sadly, “We killed him!!!! We did not do enough to protect him.”
Rafi’s first contact with Rabin and Sharon had been three decades earlier when he was a soldier in training as the Six Day War broke out. Rafi had a creative battle strategy his commander utilized that spared hundreds of Israeli army vehicles. As Rafi approached the tent where Rabin and Sharon, military leaders in 1967, were looking at maps and talking about the next steps in battle and the need for vehicles, Rafi entered the tent and Sharon looked up. Sharon asked him how many vehicles Rafi had with him. Because of Rafi’s battle strategy, he had saved 400 vehicles from being fired on, so he answered, “400”. Amazed, Rabin looked up and Sharon said to him: “No need to plan as I am ready for the next assignment since my supply convoy is here.” Rabin then approached Rafi, shook his hand and asked why he was not wearing officer ranks. Rafi answered “I am a soldier in training and haven’t yet earned them”. Rabin went over to one of the other officers in the tent, ripped the ranks off the shocked officer’s uniform and put them on Rafi. “He then gave me hug and said: ‘You do not need any further training’.”
That was Rabin. He was a man who never saw himself as acting alone. The smarts of a soldier in training meant as much to him as the highest ranking military leaders. Why? Because Rabin devoted his life to being part of something larger than himself.
While Israel marks the 20th anniversary of Rabin’s assassination this year, there has been controversy because timed with the anniversary are the release of two documentaries on Rabin’s killer, Yigal Amir. And in the past year, I have twice touched the gun that killed Rabin on visits to the national archives where it is kept with bullets specially designed to enter and maim someone’s insides.
Ask anyone who knows me and you will find I have been thinking about Yitzhak Rabin a lot lately. He is my hero and I do think about him often but with this November marking the 20th year of his assassination in Tel Aviv I am thinking beyond the sad events of that horrible day to what the man would want us to learn from his life as we mark his death in the midst of a very polarized Jewish world. I do not want to focus on the killer. I do not want to focus on the gun. I want to focus on what we can learn from the man with the perspective of this 20th anniversary. And I want to inspire you to as well.
Rabbi David Hartman used to say, “’They trained me at Yeshiva University so that I would be able to answer people’s [religious] questions, and I went to my first congregation in the Bronx teeming with excitement, armed with answers. I waited and waited, only to discover that no one had any questions. And then I realized that the task of the rabbi is to help people ask questions, not provide answers.’”(1) What questions do we ask on this 20th anniversary of Retzach Rabin as it is known in Hebrew? And what do we do with those answers?
I worry that as time passes, we will lose our connection to the man and his life and how it can inspire us. I worry that like on the 21st anniversary of JFK’s passing, when there was no marking of the event in Dealy Plaza in Dallas, for the first time since the shooting.(2), we will forget to remember.
Rabin was man who started life urged by his mother to be a farmer which is what the state needed when he was young, and then a warrior when he was older because that is what the state needed, and a peacemaker in his old age, because that is what the state needed. Everything he did was with a total and complete understanding that he and every other Jew had a role to play not just in the destiny of the Jewish state but the entire Jewish people.
American General Stanley McChrystal’s new book Team of Teams introduces an idea he calls “Shared Conciousness”. Coming in to command the Joint Special Operations Task Force in 2004, General McChrystal realized that his task of fighting Al Qaeda in Iraq needed a new approach from the traditional top down military model. Shared Consciousness involves transparency, trust and common purpose. Shared Consciousness was that new idea that dissolved barriers and expanded knowledge to more people in a non-hierarchal way. Shared Consciousness relies on both leaders and citizens to understand so fully the goals of whatever they are a part of that they can act with the wisdom of the greatest general or the most brilliant Prime Minister even if they are not around to guide you. It involves a devotion to valuing the potential of each individual as essential to the greater good.(3)
Rabin’s acceptance of a doctorate at Hebrew University just weeks after the Six Day war illustrates that same sense of shared consciousness he embraced when he uttered these words…
,”…[H]ow honored that through me you are expressing such deep appreciation to my comrades-in-arms and to the uniqueness of the Israel Defense Forces, which is essentially an extension of the unique spirit of the entire Jewish people.” In his mind that moment was an appreciation not just of him, not just of the Israeli army, not just of the Israeli citizenry but that leap to the entire Jewish people.(4)
On this day of Yom Kippur, tradition says that Moses brought down the second set of the ten commandments. If you remember the story, when Moses brought down the first set after spending 40 days on Mount Sinai, he descended and saw the children of Israel dancing around the golden calf. He threw the tablets to the ground and they broke. Dr. Arnold Lustiger teaches that there are different opinions about Moses’ role in the breaking of the tablets. While most understand that Moses threw the tablets down in anger, “There is another opinion that Moses did not break the tablets deliberately, but they fell from his hands and broke on their own”. Yalkut Shimoni (Ki Sisa 393). You would expect that it would be far more difficult to carry heavy tablets UP a mountain, than down a mountain. How strange it was that they fell out of his hands on the descent, which should be easier.
Something changed the second time Moses ascends and descends Mount Sinai. Moses went back up Mount Sinai with a mission – it was as if, in seeking God’s forgiveness, he was bringing the entire people back up the mountain with him. Moses in this guise was capable of carrying not only the two Tablets but the entire world on his shoulders.” (5)
That this event happened on this day of Yom Kippur is not just a lesson about the physics of mountain climbing. It is a lesson that transcends time and tells us that if we are concentrating on a task for the greater good of our people, we are living that Shared Consciousness General McChrystal and Yitzchak Rabin taught their troops and all of us to follow, and in doing that finding great strength within.
The Jewish People Policy Institute, in a recent report noted, “The State of Israel was established as the core state of the Jewish people. Unlike other countries, Israel carries the responsibility of not just its citizens…but also shoulders the heavy onus for the future and security of the entire Jewish people.” Shouldering that heavy onus is not easy – Moses’s life was full of difficulty and disappointment at times because of this great responsibility and he never got to realize his dream of entering the land of Israel. Rabin as well had difficulties. He had to resign from being Prime Minister in the 1970’s because of a personal banking scandal, and he actually had a nervous breakdown just days before the Six Day War from too much nicotine and too little food and the pressures of being chief of the Israel army. But because both these men exhibited the shared consciousness that is essential to the Jewish people, I believe that enabled them to overcome their difficult times with the knowledge they were part of something far greater. And living in that way gave them a full and rewarding life and a legacy of a remembrance for good. And isn’t that what we all dream of?
All of us here today were a part of Rabin’s shared consciousness. His world didn’t stop at the borders of Israel but included you and I and the whole Jewish world. We won the Six Day War with him and the Yom Kippur War and we were at the peace treaties and we were there yes even the night he was killed in Tel Aviv.
Today is the day of drama, when we receive the tablets and release our sins and mark who we will be in the year ahead. But the challenge is not going up the mountain and coming here. This day is dramatic and beautiful and powerful. It is going down the mountain buoyed by the idea that you are part of something greater than yourself, like Moses, like Rabin, that is our challenge and keeping the shared, dare I say, sacred consciousness beyond this day that matters most.
The sacred task I see before me this Yom Kippur is to ask what do we learn from the score of time?
Can the stirring of the shofar prod us to ask questions about Rabin on the 20th anniversary that can have substantial influence not just on this anniversary but the 21st anniversary and beyond or will the Jewish world fall quiet in remembrance after this year, as did Dealy Square, on the 21st of JFK’s passing as if there is an expiration date that comes with a 20th anniversary?
From General McCrystal we can learn Shared consciousness but from Rabin we can learn the survival of the Jewish people depends on us. The Jewish world may feel very divided right now and the task of uniting that divided world is daunting. We may not feel part of that shared consciousness as Jews here in Boca Raton. Understanding Jewish history or staying on top of news from Israel may seem unrealistic with so many things that compete for our time in today’s world.
But if we hook into that idea of shared consciousness and not squander this day and this anniversary, and understand that however far we may feel from Moses or Rabin or the person across the aisle, we are connected and we are responsible one for the other.
This past winter, when I was Rabbi In Residence on an AIPAC trip to Israel with a group of rabbinical students, I realized even the new generation of rabbis about to be ordained have not bought into that Shared Consciousness. And because there was no Rabin or Moses around to illustrate, I had to be the one to epitomize this idea that we are all essential and have a role as significant as Rabin or Moses if but only we would accept it and act on it. And I will tell you from personal experience, living a life that says WHAT HAPPENS IN ISRAEL AFFECTS ME AND VICE VERSA is as enriching for me as it was for Rabin or for Moses. To embrace the idea of Shared Conciousness and your role as essential to the Jewish future provides power and meaning and a spiritual reward of being part of something greater than any one person, and allows you to take you place in the chain of thousands of years of Jewish history.
But part of me worries we have failed. When Rabin stood on the White House Lawn with Yassir Arafat and President Bill Clinton, who would popularize the phrase “Shalom Haver two years later at Rabin’s funeral, in September of 1993 he declared, “We have come from Jerusalem, the ancient land and eternal capital of the Jewish people. We have come from an anguished and grieving land. We have come from a people, a home, a family that has not known a single year, not a single month, in which mothers have not wept for their sons. We have come to try and put an end to the hostilities so that our children, our children’s children, will no longer experience the painful cost of war, violence and terror. We have come to secure their lives and to ease the soul and the painful memories of the past – to hope and pray for peace. We say to you today, in a loud and clear voice: enough of blood and tears, Enough.” (6)
But twenty years later, it is not enough.
Rabin was the first Prime Minister to be born in Eretz Yisrael. It made him different. For while the children of the Exodus in Egypt thousands of years ago or survivors of pogroms in Russia or the Holocaust, would in some ways would always be hurt by their sufferings, Rabin was a native son of his land like many of us here are of ours, most of us born here in freedom and resonate with the difference that makes in our outlook versus that of our immigrant relatives in the generations before us. He was born in a land that was our refuge. Rabin lived his life as a man of “We”, always representing the nation that was his birthplace and his people that were his birthright. The words he shared on the White House lawn were words from the mouth of a man who lived his whole life fully shared with the destiny, security and safety of not just the land he was born into, but for Jews everywhere.
On this 20th anniversary, and on the 21st and on the subsequent anniversaries, I pray we have the strength to remember the man who reminds us of the complicated nature of being part of the Jewish people. Sometimes like young Rabin, we need to be a farmer and plant and nurture the seeds of Jewish wisdom and knowledge. Sometimes like the adult Rabin, we need to be a warrior and get wounded fighting to keep Judaism alive in a world where our freedom and success has led to our letting go of tradition and connection to our people. And sometimes like the older Rabin, we need to see ourselves as a peacemaker who understands that as much as we may have suffered at the hands of our enemies, that one can work towards a day when Israel can know a time of Shalom, of Peace. Each of us has a role to play in achieving Rabin’s dream of “enough” if only we would dare try. Shalom Haver and Shana Tova.
1. “Words of Parting”, Leon Wiener Dow quoting David Hartman in “Kerem”. P 157-164.
2. New York Times, November 23, 1984, “Anniversary of Kennedy’s death is noted quietly at Dealy Plaza’, AP
3. McChrystal, Stanley A., Tantum Collins, David Silverman, and Chris Fussell. Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World. Portfolio/Penguin, 2015.
4. Address by Chief of Staff Yitzhak Rabin upon receiving the Honorary Doctorate of Philosophy at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Mount Scopus, Jerusalem , June 28, 1967
6. Address by Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin upon signing the Israel-Palestinian Declaration of Principles
September 13, 1993