What Might Have Been If? Yitzhak Rabin z”l and Lech Lecha

Personal photo from November 1995

Parashat Lech Lecha will always remind me of Yitzhak Rabin, z”l. Living in Jerusalem at the time, I can remember the details of the night Rabin was assassinated the way my parents can remember where they were when they learned of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

Rabin was assassinated 24 years ago this week after attending an anti-violence rally in support of the Oslo Accords, by a conservative Israeli Jew opposed to the pact. The 1993 accords culminated in mutual recognition between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization, which Israel had long banned as a terrorist organization, and the first formal agreements in a phased effort to resolve the century-old conflict.

They called for a comprehensive peace agreement by 1999, which was widely expected to lead to statehood for the Palestinians, and for Israel, realization of the long-held goal of land for peace. But by the Fall of 1995, there were protests against the agreement, there was hateful rhetoric against Rabin, posters of him dressed as a Nazi or like former PLO head, Yasir Arafat, were burned in the streets by right wing Israelis against any form of negotiated agreement.

There are many things one could say about Rabin, but for me, one of his enduring legacies 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 high like 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 (Gen. 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.

The morning before the peace rally after which Rabin was assassinated, Parashat Lech Lecha was read in synagogues. Genesis 12 marks the first promise of land to the Jewish people, a promise which, translated from opportunity to idolatry, led to the tragedy of biblical proportions that came to pass that Saturday night, November 4, 1995.

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 Abram to hear the voice of God and journey into the unknown and make a covenant for the future, so may 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. We will never know what might have been had that night 24 years ago ended with Rabin returning home to his family, the nation he loved, and the ongoing quest for a real and lasting peace between Israel and the Palestinians.

In the lyrics of the song Mah Haya Im? – “What would have been if?” by the Israeli band, Hadag Nahash:

“But you should know, that there are moments
When I see high above the Cypress trees
And above the heads of my exhausted people
A bubble floats and inside three words:
“What would have been if?”

As we remember and lament, may Rabin’s willingness to embark on lasting covenants echo in the ears of Israel’s current leadership, and may they rebound and return for our collective future.

Yehi zichro baruch. May Rabin’s memory be for a blessing.

About the Author
Rabbi Yael B. Ridberg serves as the spiritual leader of Congregation Dor Hadash in San Diego, California. In addition to her congregational responsibilities, Rabbi Ridberg serves on the Board of The San Diego Jewish Academy. She lives in La Jolla with her husband and four daughters.
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