Tzom Gedaliah is a minor fast day in Judaism and one I didn’t learn about as a child. When I learned about it this year, I was surprised by how much this fast day has to teach the Jews of today.
For those of us who don’t know, (which, till after the fast this year included me) the story begins after the Babylonians destroyed the Judean monarchy. Nebuchadnezzar dragged the royalty of the time in chains to prevent any hopes of resurrecting the monarchy. However, the Babylonians were smart enough to realize the best way to govern was not to force a foreign governor on a conquered people, but to choose one among them to be the governor.
This would give the conquered people a sense of dignity and a feeling of autonomy, which would pacify them from rebelling. Such a governor would be familiar with his own people’s customs and language and therefore, better equipped to rule them. Orders would seem less oppressive from one of their own people and there was less likelihood of assassination. Taxes would be collected, the people would feel respected and the Babylonians could avoid wasting precious resources quelling unrest.
The governor appointed by Babylonia in around 423 BCE was Gedaliah Ben Achikam. By all accounts, he was a good and fair man who loved the Judean people and worked hard to help them restore some dignity and autonomy. According to historians, he advocated a peaceful relationship with Babylonians and began reintroducing the farming industry to build up the economy. Things were starting to look up for Judea.
Sadly, a foreign king sent a Jewish agent named Ishmael, Ben Nethaniah to assassinate the governor in hopes of making Judea a vassal. Even though Gedaliah was warned of possible threats by his wise and loyal officer, Johanan Ben Kareah, he refused to suspect his own people.
Ishmael and his attendants were allowed entry. They quickly fulfilled his deadly mission, killing Gedaliah and much of the court. Those who survived were taken captive.
Johanan was on duty elsewhere, but when he heard of the tragedy, he gathered whatever men he could to rescue the captives and bring Ishmael to justice. Jochanan managed to rescue the captives, but Ishamel was able to escape.
Sadly, Jochanan was not able to maintain order. The people of Judea rightly panicked. Killing the representative of the Babylonian king was equivalent to full-on rebellion and was an act of war against the Empire. The Jews living in Judea fled to surrounding areas to avoid being massacred, leaving the country abandoned, and all dreams of autonomy gone. It would take almost a century for the people to regain self-governance.
The vivid story filled my imagination. I wished I could go back in time and have been a member of his staff. In this alternate history, this would have been my advice.
“Your excellency, it’s wonderful you want to show you trust the Judean people. I am totally supportive of this mission, but we also have credible evidence of a possible danger to your life.
Therefore, I advise you to temper trust with reasonable suspicion. We will take intelligence reports that are credible seriously, so let’s create a timeline for a possible attack.
The first level is prevention.
Johanan Ben Kareah is your most loyal warrior and advisor. He will be on duty at your side, and you will stick close to him. I know you want him assigned elsewhere because you think he’s overly suspicious, but instead, you should listen to him, because he’s right.
In agreement with his advice, everyone entering your presence will be searched and disarmed of all weapons. Obviously, that should be the policy every single day but especially this day.
We’re going to blunt any common object that can be used as a weapon. I know it will be hard to cut the meat, but it’s better to eat with our hands than have you stabbed. Also, we’re definitely keeping your food separated so you can’t be poisoned.
Of course, we’ll also search the palace and make sure no one who shouldn’t be there is found there.
The second level will be boundaries.
As such, we are going to preserve distance. During your audience time, you should maintain space from anyone who can’t be verified to be loyal to you. You can have a conversation with someone and be entirely friendly, across a table, or flanked by guards. None of the foreign guests can kiss your ring or touch you. I know it’s unfriendly, but you can ask for forgiveness on Yom Kippur, it’s conveniently less than two weeks away.
The third level is combat.
We will have well-armed guards around you at all times. Think of it as the soldiers being on a Jewish pride mission to show the new governance is strong and secure. Seeing you surrounded by them isn’t a show of force, it’s a show of national pride. And the fact that they have been well-trained in hand-to-hand combat is just a bonus.”
Autonomy would have been preserved. How that would’ve changed history is beyond anyone’s guess, but I believe that self-governance is always best for a people. Given that Gedaliah was starting to rebuild the kingdom, it’s possible we could have achieved self-goverence sooner rather than decades later.
Jokes aside in my little imaginary presentation, it’s a vital lesson also for today. Trusting people is great but never allow trust to become naivety. We want to greet the world with open arms, but we can’t ignore the real dangers around us.
Finding that balance is hard, but we should never ignore the reality that personal safety must be a factor in our consideration at all times. Gedaliah paid the price for being too trusting, and I hope everyone learns a lesson from it.
Use those some levels in your own life.
- Be aware of possible threats
- Set boundaries to make sure you don’t get close to danger
- If danger comes to you, be ready to defend yourself.
That’s the true way to honor the memory of a Judean patriot, and a true hero of Jewish history.