Monday, September 21, 2009

Reflections on the Life and Death of Gedalia

Yom sheni, 3 Tishrei 5770.

Usually on the minor Jewish fasts, the boys are at school, where the responsibility of explaining the significance of the fast falls to their long-suffering rebbeim.  This year, Sports Guy's rebbeim were overcome by a bout of common sense, and allowed the young hopefuls to fast at home.

A growing teenager often lifts the fridge up with his bare hands, empties its contents into his mouth, and then declares that he is starving to death.  So fourteen hours without a crumb of food or a drop of water can be challenging for the teenangel, and for those subjected to his presence.  So I don't begrudge the rabbis their decision to deal with only their own kids, instead of twenty or so surly uncomfortable sons of other people.

But that leaves it up to me to prevent Tzom Gedalia from being just the Day of the Empty Tummy to sleep through -- not the most spiritual state.

Before his several-hours nap, Sports Guy and I talked about the history of this fast.  What's the big deal about a governor being killed?  Unfortunately throughout history there have been far too many murdered righteous Jews.  Okay, so he was the last Jewish leader -- really our last hope for self-government -- that the Babylonian ruler allowed, after the Destruction of the Holy Temple.  But what makes his assassination worthy of being counted among the four fasts that commemorate that Destruction?

After the Temple was destroyed, Nevuchadnezzar appointed a righteous commoner, Gedalia ben Achikam, as a "governor" over the tiny remnant of Jews that remained in the Holy Land.  This heartened Jews who had fled or been exiled to surrounding countries; and they began to stream back into their ancestral homeland.  But the king of neighboring Ammon didn't want the Jews to have any success.  One of his loyal citizens was a Jew of royal blood named Yismael ben Netanya.  The king convinced Yismael that it was unjust for a mere commoner to be appointed governor, instead of someone like Yismael.  Through his jealousy, Yismael was persuaded to assassinate Gedalia.

Even though Gedalia had been warned that Yismael was coming to kill him, he failed to take the warning seriously, assuming it to be lashon hara (slander).

When Yismael and his followers arrived in Mitzpe on the third day after Rosh Hashana, they were greeted warmly and respectfully by Gedalia.  Yismael and his men murdered Gedalia, as well as many other Jews, and several Babylonians that Nevuchadnezzar had charged with "keeping an eye on" Gedalia.  The remaining Jews, fearing reprisals from the Babylonian king, fled to Egypt -- leaving holy Israel Judenrein.

Various of our sages point to the combination of the murder of a righteous Jew with the desertion of Israel as the reason for this fast.  Others point out the terrible spiritual weight upon which we Jews must reflect.  Here it was, between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur.  Surely, Yismael ben Netanya would have been asking for Hashem's mercy, along with his fellow Jews.  Why did he not repent for the terrible and destructive mida of jealousy, at least at this holy, introspective time of the year?

There are other concepts we can learn from the historic events of Tzom Gedalia.  While we are enjoined not to believe lashon hara, we are not free from thinking rationally, from weighing warnings about potentially dangerous liaisons or situations.  Judaism is not a religion of assuming sweetness and light; rather, it is a religion that demands careful thought rather than careless reaction.

Sports Guy and I thought of another lesson which we learned from this tragedy -- perhaps brought to our imaginations by current events.  One of the most sordid aspects of the murder of Gedalia ben Achikam is that he was murdered at the hands of a fellow Jew.  We Jews are reminded again and again that we do not merely share a nation and a religion.  We are brothers, and we are expected to be loyal to one another.

Whether one's name is Mazeroff or Madoff, Goldberg or Goldstone, it might be important for every one of us to reflect on the potential tragedy wrought by disloyalty -- especially when we are being scrutinized by Hashem for our adherence to His values.  The consequences of every choice may be bigger than we think.

Gmar chatima tova!

Sources:  Tzom Gedaliah,; A Second Opinion, by Rabbi Pinchas Frankel; Tzom Gedalya, by Rabbi Yosef Prero, at
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