of the Rabbinical Assembly in Israel


Studies in Jewish religious ideology in the climate of Masorti (Conservative) Judaism
Originally published October 25th 1996 / Marĥeshvan 12th 5757 [Rabin's First Yahrzeit]

Bet Midrash Virtuali

Today is the first anniversary of the murder of Israel's late Prime Minister, Yitzĥak Rabin. It is most fitting that we should have an extraordinary learning session on this day, in memory of the leader for whom our Mishnah Study group is named. What can one study that might arouse the passions of disgust and remorse that this event must perforce create in our hearts? The murder of Yitzĥak Rabin was a cowardly act, the traitorous killing of an innocent man, whose virtues, both personal and political, far outweighed his shortcomings. On this one occasion I have decided to turn to the Biblical record, instead of to Mishnah.

One story in the Tanakh [Bible], it seems to me, contains most of the elements that we recognize: a people divided, the assassination of a political leader, and the desperate attempts of those left behind to pick up the pieces and to unite the disunited people.

Instead of Mishnah, today we shall study a short passage from the Second book of Samuel, Chapter 3, verses 31-39:

And David said to Joab and to all the people that were with him, 'Rend your garments and put on sackcloth and perform the mourning rites for Avner.' King David walked behind the bier, and Avner was buried in Hebron. Then the king raised his voice and wept over Avner's grave and all the people wept. And the king composed the following dirge for Avner: 'Should Avner have died like a churl? - hands not bound nor feet fettered in chains; You fell as one felled by worthless men.' And all the people wept all the more. The people came to offer David the meal of consolation while it was still day, but David made a solemn oath: 'So may God do to me and yet more: before sundown I will not eat bread or anything else!' Then all the people understood and approved everything that the king had done. Thus all the people and all Israel knew that day that the king had no part in the killing of Avner ben-Ner. The king then said to his entourage: 'Do you not see that a prince, a great man has fallen this day in Israel? I am newly come into my kingship and these men, the sons of Zeruyah, are too hard for me. May God punish the evildoer appropriately.'


Avner ben-Ner was a close relative of Israel's first king, Saul; he was also the military commander of Saul's armed forces After both Saul and Jonathan died in the battle of Mount Gilbo'a, Avner managed to maintain one of Saul's surviving sons in some kind of power in opposition to David. Thus the country was divided between those whose allegiance continued to be given to the House of Saul under the leadership of Avner (in the north of the country), and those who preferred to be true to David (in the south).

David, whose popularity and power were growing in Hebron, realized that he could not become king of all Israel without doing some kind of deal with Avner. Avner realized that he should not maintain the division of the loyalties of the people for ever, and so sought a peaceful transfer of the allegiance of the people of the North to the House of Judah in the South, recognizing that David was a far more worthy leader than Ishboshet his (Avner's) puppet-king. Thus we see that Avner was not only a great soldier, but also a peacemaking statesman and a master of 'real-politik'. Avner made overtures to David who invited him for talks in Hebron, after having given cast iron assurances that Avner's person would be inviolate if he came to David's headquarters for the discussions.

David's own military leader, his cousin Yo'av ben-Zeruyah, could not believe that David would let pass this golden opportunity to eliminate his only opponent of stature. Thus it was that Yo'av assassinated the unsuspecting Avner, for political motivations, in the middle of the peace talks in Hebron. All this you can read in detail in Chapter Three of the Second Book of Samuel, verses 1-30.

David was now in the terrible situation of being suspected of having advance knowledge of Yo'av's plans, possibly of having approved them, or even of having instigated them. Worse, unless he acted quickly and appropriately he would have the North up in arms against the traitorous South, and all hopes of a peaceful reunification of the divided people would be gone. This explains the great pains David took at Avner's funeral to exculpate himself from all suspicion.

The Talmud [Sanhedrin 20a] recognizes this. The mishnah on that page, discussing the limitations placed on a king of Israel during times of sorrow (so that he may never lose his dignity in public), notes that a king who has suffered a bereavement does not leave his palace. The Gemara points out that while this is the general rule, a king may join a levaya [funeral procession] if he so wishes, citing David's behaviour at Avner's funeral as proof. Why did King David take part in Avner's levaya? - in order to take the opportunity to go from man to man and from man to woman to explain personally that he had nothing to do with Avner's death! (The Gemara also learns from this that there is no objection to women taking part in a funeral procession. The objection of today's ultra-orthodox to the presence of women at the grave side is kabbalistic in origin.)

The Gemara learns all this from a Kre-Ketiv: this refers to a situation where the traditional reading of a word is different from the written form of the word that had come down to the Massoretes (who are responsible for the Hebrew text of the Tanakh). Our text reads that the people wished to offer David the meal of consolation [lehavrot]. The sages point out that the Ketiv [written text] reads likhrot [to lynch]. This suggests that David knew that the people wished to lynch him for the dastardly assassination of Avner, but because he went from person to person during the funeral to explain that he had nothing to do with the murder, he managed to pull his chestnuts out of the fire. (I wonder what his bodyguards thought about it!) The most amazing thing is that in our present text of the Tanakh there is no Kre-Ketiv at this point!

David can be criticized for moral turpitude in that he did not punish Yoav for the murder of Avner. The fact that he excuses himself ('the sons of Zeruyah are too hard for me') shows that he knew that he should have done. I suppose we can put down his negligence in this matter to 'political necessity'. On his death-bed, decades later, he charged his son Solomon to see to it that Yo'av ben-Zeruyah did not die a natural death - because he murdered Avner ben-Ner all those years previously!

I find that there are phrases in the passage we have studied that are also most appropriate to the murder of Yitzĥak Rabin: if one replaces the name Avner with the name Rabin it becomes poignant.

Should Rabin have died like a churl? - hands not bound nor feet fettered in chains; You fell as one felled by worthless men...

Is this the way the victor of the Six-Day war should have died, the soldier who lay down his arms and sought to bring the fruits of peace to his people? Radak [Rabbi David Kimchi, Provence, Middle Ages] interprets thus: He was not arrested [not bound or fettered] or tried for any crime: who then had the right to kill him thus? Certainly Rabin fell as one felled by a worthless man [ben-avlah].

Do you not see that a prince [Sar], a great man has fallen this day in Israel?

How poignant. The title in his funeral oration that David gives Avner, Sar, is the word used in modern Hebrew to designate a Cabinet Minister, a member of the Government. Indeed, a Sar and a great man was done to death this day one year ago by a ben-avlah, and his grave may be visited in Jerusalem. And the grave of another great man who wanted to bring about peace and was done to death by his political opponents can be found to this day in Hebron, right by the Cave of Makhpelah. It is virtually unvisited.

May God punish the evildoer appropriately

- the evildoer both of then and of now.

One last note of a topical nature. I ask myself why it is that Hebron so often seems to have been the site for extreme violence. This propensity seems to have passed on to the present inhabitants of the city (of both religions). Surely it's better to sit down together and drink a cup of tea that to put it to more violent and divisive uses. The fact that such an incident should have occurred in Hebron of all places and on the eve of Yitzĥak Rabin's Yahrzeit is surely a disturbing omen.

May the great soul of Yitzĥak ben Rosa u-Neĥemya Rabin rest in peace. Amen, Amen