Jewish Learning
Shabbat, Festivals & The Year
Rabbi Gideon Sylvester

The Fast of Gedaliah

We were leaving a Chinese restaurant when we first heard the rumours. It sounded ridiculous, impossible, who would shoot the Prime Minister? And surely he had enough bodyguards to protect him? Then came the radio announcement, "The government of Israel announces in consternation, in great sadness, and in deep sorrow, the death of prime minister and minister of defense Yitzhak Rabin".

As Israelis and Jews around the world went into shock, the questions began; who had assassinated our leader? Was it a Jew or an Arab? Could Israeli democracy survive the attack? Even the smooth transition of leadership did not end the flow of questions. How had the religious community allowed a killer to grow up in our midst? Was he simply a mad man or was this symptomatic of a wider problem?

Alongside these disturbing questions, a more positive spirit entered the nation. People began exploring the fissures between different sections of the nation. Dialogue groups sprang up bringing together disparate groups and Acting Prime Minister, Shimon Peres invited my Rosh Yeshiva; Rabbi Yehudah Amital to join the government with the specific task of uniting the religious and secular communities.

With time, other issues took their place on the agenda, the nation began to heal and to forget the tragedy which had taken place. Although by an act of parliament, the assassination is marked each year, the number of people attending the commemorations is falling, the TV cameras stay away and the Rabin family has removed their patronage from the event. The dramatic events of fourth of November 1995 feel very distant.

It's hard to keep a dead man's memory alive, even if he has been a national leader. That's why it's so impressive, that year after year Jews across the world mark the assassination of Gedaliah ben Ahikam, Governor of Israel over two thousand five hundred years ago. The killing was carried out by a fellow Jew, Yishmael Ben Netaniah who was acting on instructions of a jealous foreign ruler, the King of Amon. Gedaliah had been appointed Governor by the Babylonians and his rule ushered in a period of great promise calm when Jews who had been exiled to Babylon began returning to the Land of Israel.

Gedaliah's assassination marked a profound change for the Jewish people. Our last chance at national sovereignty was extinguished; we were to be exiles in Babylon. In the words of the Talmud, the killing of this righteous man was equivalent to the destruction of the Temple, ushering in a period of great calamity. (Talmud Rosh Hashanah 18b)

The Fast of Gedaliah takes place just after Rosh Hashanah. It’s a little jarring that after two days of intense prayer and festivities, we are thrown headlong into remembering a national catastrophe. But remembering historical tragedies is a prompt for us to think about how we can improve our Jewish lives. The Fast of Gedaliah is a humbling reminder that we are in the Ten days of Penitence, preparing for Yom Kippur. Now is the time to get to work with the process of repenting. Since it follows two days of festive over-eating, fasting is not too much of a sacrifice.

The Fast of Gedaliah is our opportunity to reach back into our history to state that every individual counts; no one should be forgotten. It’s a chance to remember the catastrophic effects of Jew killing Jew and it's the time to kick start our repentance, so that we can build a better future for ourselves, our communities, our nation and the world.

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