Last week, This American Life produced a segment in honor of the 20th anniversary of the murder of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin z”l. Called “The Night in Question,” producer Nancy Updike and reporter Dan Ephron reconstructed the night of the murder, interview Haggai Amir, the brother and accomplice of convicted killer, Yigal Amir, who is still in prison, and shared some observations about ongoing conspiracy theories still bandied about in Israeli society. It was a riveting 60 minutes, and brought me back to the night of November 4, 1995, when I was living in Jerusalem, and experienced that night as it unfolded.
There are many things one could say about Rabin, but for me, one of the enduring legacies of Rabin was his willingness to embark on covenant making, in spite of the many complexities and complications that come from seeking peace with one’s enemies. Covenant making is often a risky and dangerous undertaking, especially when the stakes are as high as those in the Middle East.
As we meet Abraham this week in Parashat Lech Lecha, we follow him as answers a call of covenant making. He leaves his native land, his community, and his home, and the Torah imagines that he follows a divine command to set out on a journey into the unknown of the future. A future that is characterized by a prophecy of enslavement for 400 years on the way to the blessings of a promised land, and a destiny secured.
As the sun sets, Avram is alone and hears a voice telling him, al tira, “Don’t be afraid, I will be like a shield and protect you.” (Gen. 15:1) The text describes how Abram falls into a deep sleep (tardemah), and a dark dread descended upon him. The sleep is understood by the rabbis as one of prophecy and vision. A sleep which can conjure creativity, spiritual depth, intensity, and otherworldliness. The word tardemah is the same word used to describe what happened to the first human when the first woman was fashioned from its side. A transformative kind of sleep. The “dark dread” that descended upon Abram was understood by the rabbis to refer to the different nations that would seek to uproot Abram’s descendants from the land.
The text depicts a mysterious ceremony. The brit bein ha’betarim – the covenant of the pieces (15:17) offers that whatever joy Abram and Sarai experience in being told they will have children as numerous as the stars of heaven (15:5), and that they will inherit a promised land (15:18-21), those rewards will come only after their progeny and future generations have been strangers, oppressed and enslaved. The divine voice tells him that God is with him, even as the dream will be deferred. The smoking oven and the flaming torch (lapid esh) which passed between the animals used in the sacrifice represents a powerful juxtaposition of the light amidst the darkness that gives way to a vision of redemption.
The promise made to Abram, who becomes Abraham in the course of covenant making, prophesies stages of suffering – alienation, enslavement, and oppression – which will be followed by redemption. The light of the flaming torch is what enables Abraham to embark on his journey of promise. Without that great light, there would be no future.
At Rabin’s funeral, his granddaughter Noa called her grandfather amud ha’esh lifnei hamachaneh – the pillar of fire in front of the camp. She expressed that his murder left her feeling in the dark, left in the cold and damp, without him. Despite being one who entered into difficult covenants, where the future seemed uncertain, and even alien and oppressive, Rabin still stood for a future of light, not darkness.
As we remember the daring it took for Abraham to hear the voice of God and journey into the unknown and make a covenant for the future, so must we remember the life and legacy of Yitzhak Rabin z”l, whose own daring and risk taking was for the sake of a covenant of peace.
In these difficult days for Israel, may the final words of Rabin’s shir l’shalom – song of peace – echo b’tzakah gedola – with a great shout – in the ears of Israel’s leadership and may they rebound and return for our collective future.
Yehi zichro baruch. May Rabin’s memory be for a blessing.