Thursday, September 20, 2012

Fasting for Gedaliah

This last Wednesday marked what must be the least known, least observed, and least esteemed fast day of the Jewish year, the Fast of Gedaliah. Falling, as it does, on the day after Rosh Hashanah and thus exactly one week before Yom Kippur (the fast day that everybody actually has heard of), poor Gedaliah gets lost in the shuffle so routinely that it occasionally seems surprising to me that anyone takes note of him or his fast at all. It’s actually a shame, because, in its unobtrusive, almost pathologically understated way, Tzom Gedaliah actually has a powerful, interesting message for contemporary Jewry.

Gedaliah is more formally Gedaliah ben Achikam. He lived a long time ago. And he lived in a terrible time. Judah, the only remaining Jewish state after the destruction of the northern kingdom of Israel almost a century and a half earlier, was a province of the Babylonian empire in the sixth century BCE, but not a docile one. People were unhappy. Sedition was in the air. And then, as they do, things came to a head when the king of Judah, an otherwise undistinguished ruler named Zedekiah, revolted against his foreign masters. It was an ill-considered move, one the king was specifically, forcefully, and repeatedly warned against taking by the prophet Jeremiah. Nor was it even briefly successful. The Babylonian response was, at least in ancient terms, instant. And it was also incredibly brutal. Jerusalem was captured. The Temple was razed. The city’s finest building were destroyed. And, for good measure, the city’s walls torn down, thus leaving it basically defenseless . King Zedekiah was forced to look on as his sons were executed before his eyes…and then his own eyes were put out so that the death of his boys would be the last thing he ever saw on this earth. And then they dragged him off to exile in Babylon along with thousands of his countrymen.

It was a terrible time, one made worse by the fact that the prophet had provided clear instructions regarding the specific way to avert the debacle. But who knew to listen? There were other so-called “prophets” out there as well, men who were offering the king and the people precisely the sunny message they wanted desperately to hear. In retrospect, it feels like child’s play to damn those phony purveyors of false optimism as charlatans (“Thus says the God of Israel: I have broken the yoke of the king of Babylon”)…but how exactly the people were supposed to know before the fact that Jeremiah’s message was legitimately to be taken as the word of the living God, but that, say, Chananiah ben Azur’s was made-up nonsense—that, Scripture regretfully omits clearly to say. So it was a kind of horse race. The king bet on the wrong horse. And he paid the big price for doing so. Apparently, you’re supposed just to know when you hear God’s word being preached to you.

Not everyone went into exile. Most, to be sure, were shlepped off to the east. The numbers are not known exactly. Still, it seems clear from what we can glean from the biblical accounts that even though a very large number of citizens were killed and thousands more were taken off into exile, there were nevertheless some who remained in the land. These, the Bible relates, were mostly poor, uneducated types whom the Babylonians simply didn’t bother to deport. And over these few survivors the Babylonians, slightly amazingly, placed a Jewish governor. That would be our Gedaliah, a former government official now doing his best to do his best, and to make the best of a wretched situation. The prophet Jeremiah, for example, describes Gedaliah encouraging the people left in the land simply to make peace with how things were, to gather in whatever might be left of the summer harvest, to set up housekeeping in the ruined cities of Judah and to carry on as best they can. Even after all these many centuries, it sounds like sound advice.

Probably, even, it was sound advice. But not everybody was on board. Jeremiah tells the story of a certain Yochanan coming to tell Gedaliah that an assassin named Ishmael had been hired by the king of a neighboring country to murder him and offering, apparently on his own, to save Gedaliah’s life by killing Ishmael before he could act on his commission. The king’s name was Baalis. He ruled over a small kingdom on the east side of the Jordan and no doubt had his reasons to want Gedaliah gone. What those reasons precisely were, the Bible omits to say. But it hardly matters because Jeremiah reports that Gedaliah refused to believe the report and forbade Yochanan from taking matters into his own hand.

He should have listened. On the day after Rosh Hashanah in that very year—or perhaps even on Rosh Hashanah itself—Ishmael ben Netaniah murdered Gedaliah just as Yochanan had predicted he would. And he also slew a number of Jewish people who were with Gedaliah as well as a number of Babylonian citizens who had become part of his entourage. And, with that, it was all over. The fat lady sang. Home rule was ended. Whatever good might have come from a Jewish governor ruling over the remnants of a decimated population was not to be. When King Cyrus of Persia defeated the Babylonians a few decades later, Judah simply passed from one alien empire into another. Whatever good Gedaliah might have done died with him. 

So who was this Gedaliah? To his opponents, no doubt, he was a collaborator, a patsy of his people’s ruthless foes who, by agreeing to serve as governor of defeated Judah, was simply granting legitimacy to their brutal overthrow of the House of David. (There is a personal side to the story as well in that Ishmael, Gedaliah’s murderer, was a member of the now deposed royal family.) But was Gedaliah a traitor? Or would it be more reasonable to think of him simply as a man thrown by happenstance into an untenable situation in which he was nonetheless willing to try to do some good? Even today moderns seem unable definitively to decide how they feel about those Jews who served on the Judenräte that the Nazis set up to rule briefly over the ghettos of Eastern Europe before their inhabitants could be deported to their deaths. Were they doing what they could to ameliorate unbearable suffering in a situation so extreme as truly, and entirely reasonably, to resist after-the-fact judgment by armchair ethicists? Or were they simply doing the devil’s work by helping to keep things calm and orderly while the pits were being dug and the crematoria readied for use? I’ve had Steve Sem-Sandberg’s novel, The Emperor of Lies, about Chaim Rumkowski and his role in bringing order—and in its wake orderly annihilation—to the Lodz ghetto on my night table for a year or so now, but I—I who read this stuff endlessly and mostly fearlessly—I can’t quite bring myself to pick it up and start reading. I’m not sure why I feel so unnerved by the topic, but I do. I’ll read it. But not quite yet.

Ishmael, Gedaliah’s assassin, ended up fleeing to Baalis’ kingdom. The day on which Gedaliah died—or, if he was killed on Rosh Hashanah, then the first non-festival day after his death—became a fast day so universally observed that a mere half century later, a different prophet, Zechariah ben Berechia, could refer vaguely to the “fast of the seventh month” as though it were completely obvious to what he was making reference. (It’s true Yom Kippur also falls during the seventh month, but the context makes it obvious that he is referring to the four days that, even by his early day, had come to commemorate the series of debacles that led to the destruction of Jerusalem: the fast of the tenth of Tevet commemorating the beginning of the siege, the fast of the seventeenth of Tammuz commemorating the breach of the city’s walls, the fast of the ninth of Av commemorating the fall of Jerusalem, and the fast of the seventh month of Tishrei commemorating the death of Gedaliah ben Achikam and with him whatever possibility might otherwise have existed for the surviving Jews of Judah to have ruled over at least some of their own affairs.) And we are still observing it, at least formally rededicating ourselves each year to the proposition that Gedaliah was more of a good man who paid an unwarranted price for his efforts on behalf of his people than he was a fool or a flunky.

I’ve been thinking about Gedaliah all week. His issue, after all, is still on our table…and in a dozen different ways. Finding the precise boundary between compromise and self-defeating acquiescence is as hard now as it was then. When the enemy speaks the language only of brutality and terror, are attempts at compromise wise or foolish? Does it make sense to work towards finding a middle ground with people who show no signs of wishing to negotiate at all? Or is picking up your own big stick the only reasonable response to someone brandishing a big stick and threatening to hit you with it? As we move into the new year, these questions will be front and center as we consider how to deal with the threat of a nuclear Iran, how Israel can or should be expected to deal with enemies as implacable and as little given to compromise as Hizbollah in Lebanon or Hamas in Gaza, or how our government should respond to attacks on our troops by the Taliban in Afghanistan. Do we fast on the anniversary of Gedaliah’s murder specifically to remind us always to seek accommodation with our enemies, thus to create the framework for shared endeavor that could possibly lead to a lessening of hostility? Or do we fast on the anniversary of his assassination to remind us that accommodation is reasonable in defeat—the Babylonians had already completely devastated Judah when Gedaliah was appointed governor over the surviving few—but that victory is always preferable to compromise in the absence of defeat? These are the questions that tradition lays at our feet as a new year dawns and, as we at least nod in passing to Gedaliah’s death, that it invites us to ponder thoughtfully and carefully as we move forward into it.

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