Dear Jonathan,

You were just born in 1993, when Yitzhak Rabin shook hands on the White House lawn with President Clinton and Yasir Arafat. You were just a toddler when, two years later, fifteen years ago, Rabin was assassinated.

I was in high school and college during these years, and, like many other grown-ups, I remember those moments like they were yesterday. I remember the tears of hope we shed in 1993, when it really seemed that peace might finally come to be. I remember the tears of sorrow and pain when we gathered for memorials and said kaddish, when Rabin was killed.

You have come of age during a decade marked by terrorism, by a dominant narrative of fear and enmity between Jews and Arabs, between “the west” and the perceived world of Islam. And yet you have grown up at a time when the world has become smaller, when we have become more interconnected through travel and technology. It has been a time of despair on the one hand and hope on the other, a time of possibility, a time of confusion.

I grew up just before all this came to be. What 9/11 and Iraq have been for you, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union were for me. What a lousy inheritance we gave you.

Around the time of 9/11, my wife Natalie and I were at a Shabbat dinner at the home of my rebbe, Avi Weiss. Rav Avi has always been known for his passionate commitment to the people of Israel and to the State of Israel. He was a key leader in the Soviet Jewry movement. He has largely been known as a right-winger on Israel. He strongly disagreed with Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres: he did not see in Yasir Arafat a partner for peace.

At that dinner was a young man who had grown up under the influence of Rav Avi. He had gone to Soviet Jewry rallies and picketed at the Soviet consulate in New York. At the time of the dinner, he was working as a political consultant for a back-bencher member of the Knesset, Avigdor Lieberman. At one point, the conversation turned to Israel and the then-raging second intifada. “Rabin and Peres have blood on their hands,” the young man said. “They brought this about.”

I remember Rav Avi’s face at that moment. His eyes grew serious, his mouth turned down a bit. He looked the young man in the eye across the Shabbat table. It was as though he were talking to a younger version of himself. He said, calmly but firmly, “You can’t say that. You can’t say that. As much as I may have disagreed with them, as much as I think they were wrong, they did what they did because of ahavat yisrael, because they love the people of Israel–every bit as much as you or me. You can’t say they have blood on their hands. They are ohavei yisrael, they love the Jewish people.” The young man was silent.

“Rabbi Yehoshua ben Perachya said: Make for yourself a teacher, and acquire for yourself a friend, and give every man the benefit of the doubt” (Pirkei Avot 1:6). A teacher in the Mishnah is one to whom we submit our authority, someone acknowledged as a master. A friend is someone who we trust has our best interests at heart. We can only have teachers, we can only have friends, if we give people the benefit of the doubt–if we assume that their intentions are good, and that their mistakes are honest. When we are confronted with evidence that someone is being deceitful or dishonest, then we have to be sober, and we are entitled to suspicion. But until that point, says Rabbi Yehoshua ben Perachya, we have to give people the benefit of the doubt.

It is hard to trust. It’s probably the hardest thing we have to do in life: to surrender our suspicion, to give up our desire for complete control. It is hard to give people the benefit of the doubt, to live in a state of suspended disbelief. But learning, the product of a teacher-student relationship, and warm (not cold) peace, the product of friendship, require it. The alternative is a life of fear and suspicion, a life that corrodes itself from within.

The world is not an easier place to live in than it was 15 years ago. Suspicion and fear, cynicism and anger, seem to be the dominant moods today, as they have been for what seems like most of your life. I’m sorry things are this way. I hope that today you’ll watch some of those old videos of Yitzhak Rabin, that you’ll learn about him and remember him, that you will experience a bit of the hope we had and the despair we felt. I hope you will internalize the power of words to inspire and to destroy, and that you’ll take responsibility for your language.

And most of all I hope you’ll find the capacity to give people the benefit of the doubt, to find a way to trust. If Rabin’s legacy begins anywhere, it is there.

In hope,

Rabbi Josh

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