The murder of Gedalia Ben Ahikam was the first political assassination where a Jew killed a Jew. This tragedy is commemorated on the day after Rosh Hashanah with the Fast of Gedaliah.
Most likely we have hardly heard about this personality, so why is it relevant to our lives as Jews? It is because it reminds us of the heavy price that we pay when we as a nation degenerate into extreme internal disputes.
How did this unfortunate event in Jewish history unfold and what is its deeper meaning?
The assassination took place in the locality of Mitzpa in the Judean Desert just 2,591 years ago. The kingdom of Judea was then under Babylonian occupation, the First Temple had been destroyed, and Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, ruled the country. In those days, the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem, exiled most of the Jewish nobility to Babylon (today’s Iraq), and concentrated in Judea the poor workers who remained so they would supply the soldiers with food.
Nebuchadnezzar appointed Gedaliah Ben Ahikam, the son of a respected family in Judea, as his High Commissioner. His role was to control the social order of the occupied minority that had remained as a sort of “Ambassador for Jewish Affairs.” Gedaliah was worried about the political entanglement that the kings of Babylon and Amon had worked out, but true to the advice of Jeremiah the prophet, the senior spiritual personality of the time, he settled in Mitzpa, west of Jerusalem, and assumed his role as the kingdom’s governor.
In less than two months, he managed to unite the remnants of the refugees of the destruction, rehabilitate the Jewish community, and life returned to its course. As a result, many Jews returned from neighboring countries, but none suspected the scheme that was being plotted under Gedaliah’s nose.
What was that scheme?
Ismael Ben Natanyah, a scion of the House of David, could not acquiesce to the fact that he was not chosen to rule Judea and was hoping to take over the reins in the country. Motivated by jealousy, he recruited a group of Jews, and together they conspired to eliminate Gedaliah. He joined forces with the King of Amon (today’s Jordan) who himself felt threatened by the renewed strength of the Jewish community headed by Gedaliah, and together they executed their malevolent plan on the eve of Rosh Hashanah.
In the midst of a festive meal hosted by Gedaliah for Ismael and his men, Ismael murdered Gedaliah the “traitor” and also massacred all of his supporters. Ismael, who had hoped to become the ruler, was met with strong opposition and rejection from the Jewish population, and became forced to escape and find refuge in Trans-Jordan. The residents of Judea, fearful of Babylonian revenge, fled to Egypt, and following them, the last remnants of the Jews immigrated to different countries and the Babylonian exile officially began.
The unfounded hatred that erupted in Judea cut short the hope of reconstruction and renewal. It brought about the last disintegration in Israeli society. It put an end to Jewish sovereignty in the Land of Israel and it ended the period of the First Temple: the symbol of unity and mutual guarantee. Since that day, it has been customary to mark the division that tore us apart and drove us out of the country as a day of fasting.
3,000 years have passed since then, and not a lot has changed in the 2019 model of the “Kingdom of Judea.” The people of Israel are divided into camps and tribes with different conceptions and viewpoints. Polarization and division are the order of the day. Any sort of leadership is met with derision, and unfounded hatred abounds. The Fast of Gedaliah that is commemorated the first day out of the ten days of repentance between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is a day of deep soul searching in which we should find out what can unite us as a people.
The more we deal with the natural elements of the people of Israel—unity, mutual guarantee and love of others—the sooner we will arrive at the realization that the reason for all suffering in our lives is the human ego: the negative force in nature. In order to counteract the ego, we need a positive force: the light of the Torah, which resides in our unity.
The murder of Gedaliah and the fast for its remembrance are a reminder, as Maimonides writes:
“There are days in which all of Israel torments themselves because of all the troubles that have occurred in them, in order to awaken the hearts and open ways of repentance. And it will serve to remind us of our bad deeds, and this memory we shall return to do good.”