A man’s legacy, especially when it’s a famous figure — a leader, a philosopher, a great rabbi, a statesman — is a kind of illusion. The man leaves behind some of the things he did in his life — writings, speeches, verdicts, works of art, notes, the results of daring acts — but his legacy is only what people choose to do with all these things after he’s gone. The legacy does not belong to the deceased, it belongs to the living. In the context of recent Israeli affairs, the legacy is not Rehavam Ze’evi’s or Itzhak Rabin’s, it is ours.
If we so choose, we may decide that the legacy has no value at all and simply dismiss the deceased person and what he left behind. If we so choose, we may decide that it has a negative value. That’s what several Tel Aviv high-school principals decided when they chose not to devote any time and resources to what is known as “the Gandhi legacy,” named after Rehavam “Gandhi” Ze’evi, the minister who was murdered by assassins during the second intifada. They did not claim that there is no legacy to discuss; rather, they claimed that this legacy — which includes, among other things, support for the transfer of Arabs from Israel — is of negative value and should, therefore, be discarded. By the way, their choice is a testament to the futility of the state’s attempt to force upon the public customs it is not interested in. The state can decide to mark this or that legacy, to hold ceremonies, have meetings, give speeches. But it is the public that will ultimately decide if these decisions have any actual societal validity. In Ze’evi’s case, it seems that the decision has been made.
Perhaps the decision has been made in Rabin’s case too. At least at this stage, 22 years after that horrible night, the public does not ignore, does not avoid and does not deny the powerful memory of the Rabin murder. The public wants this day, each for his or her own reason.
Certain groups see it as the last remnant of the glorious forgotten days, the days of peace, which have taken on, with the years, a mythological character which they never had at the time: the veiled character of utopia. Other groups see it as a warning sign against extremism, hate speech and deterioration into political violence. The legacies sometimes clash with each other. Those who want to spend Rabin Remembrance Day sharpening positions, heating up disputes and engaging in political ambushes cannot live in peace with those who wish to spend it blurring the divides, toning down the disputes and taking a break from politics.
There are also those who try to talk on Rabin’s behalf, but that’s just hot air. Rabin said many different and contradictory things throughout his life, and each political camp chooses what it finds most convenient to focus on. There are those who choose words of peace, and there are those who choose wartime achievements; there are those who choose speeches about difficult compromises that must be made, and there are those who choose speeches about Jerusalem being united for all eternity. With his death, Itzhak Rabin went silent. He cannot determine how the general public will view his legacy. In one of his most famous speeches, when he was elected prime minister for the second time, he reminded us that “there is no responsibility without authority” and forcefully stated that “I will steer…I will decide.” Here, there’s something that’s easy to agree on: There is no responsibility without authority, so we — the living — will steer and we — the living — will decide. We will argue and, at some point, decide, in whatever way, what legacy this sad day will have, based on the epic life and miserable death of Itzhak Rabin.
Those of us who study the Daf Yomi (the daily Talmud page) are now at the Sanhedrin tractate, which focuses on issues relating to the afterlife. In tomorrow’s page (Sanhedrin,108), there is a discussion about a verse from Parashat Noach: “It came about after the seven days, that the water of the flood came upon the earth.” The Talmud wonders about the nature of these “seven days” and provides an answer: These were seven days of mourning. At that very moment, Methuselah died and the world was asked to mourn him. This demand was so important that even the flood was delayed. “To teach you that eulogies for the righteous prevent calamities from ensuing.”