Learning from the life of Yehuda Avner
When Yehuda Avner visited South Africa in June 2013 as one of the popular speakers and personalities at our Sinai Indaba Convention, I had the memorable privilege of spending a great deal of time with him, which inspired me to write these few words as Israel mourns the loss of a loyal and outstanding son. Yehuda Avner was an adviser and speech writer to five prime ministers, served as Israeli ambassador to London, and was on the front lines at some of the most crucial and historic moments of modern Jewish history.
His passing at this time of political turbulence in Israel and gathering threats across the Middle East and to Jewish communities around the world is a call to us all to reflect on the values that he exemplified, values which are so necessary for Am Yisrael today, values which he taught us through the deeds of his overflowing life.
Yehuda Avner taught us what it means to be G-d’s ambassador in this world. One of the most important mitzvot is kiddush Hashem – literally translated as sanctifying G-d’s name, but actually referring to our responsibility to promote the reputation and standing of the Jewish people, Torah values and, indeed, G-d Himself in this world.
In short, this mitzva calls on us to become G-d’s ambassadors to our fellow Jews and to our fellow human beings. Everything we do and say should be measured by how it will reflect and present the values and principles of the Torah to those around us. The Gemara says that one of the most powerful ways to fulfill this mitzva is through derech eretz – behaving with refinement, kindness, and respect to all people.
It says that the way to make “the name of Heaven beloved ” to others is through those who are connected to Torah dealing with others with integrity, honesty, and gentle kindness.
Yehuda Avner was the perfect gentleman. He taught us all the supreme importance of derech eretz – a value that so many pay lip service to, but that so few really understand and live by. His qualities of derech eretz, respect and sensitivity permeated his every interaction with the people around him, infusing the rough world of politics with dignity and morality.
At a time when there is so much skepticism in Israel and around the world about politicians, he showed another way; he showed how leadership can be rooted in refinement of character, in scrupulously ethical behavior and in gentle kindness. It is through derech eretz – mutual respect and kindness – that the Jewish people can overcome the divisions and in-fighting that plague us.
Avner through his life also taught us the importance of a love for Am Yisrael, a love which transcended all of the fractures of ideology. We live in a Jewish world that is so fractured, and yet Yehuda Avner, in spite of his open political affiliation, through simple gentle derech eretz rose above the divisions and was a personality of unity.
Kiddush Hashem is also about defending and promoting the reputation of the Jewish people, because we represent G-d’s Torah and its values in this world.
The international campaign of demonizing Israel is a threat to our mission to be a “light unto to the nations,” to our mitzva of kiddush Hashem. He taught us how important it is to defend the reputation of the State of Israel before the court of world opinion, in spite of the hostile environment in many parts of the world.
He was one of the most eloquent and articulate writers and speakers to harness the beauty and power of the English language in the cause of the State of Israel and the Jewish people. He did so not in the spirit of the modern “spin doctor,” but rather in the spirit of a statesman and an intellectual who understood the depth of the justice and morality of the actions of the Jewish state in the events leading up to and following its establishment. He understood from firsthand knowledge the outrageous falsehoods leveled against Israel and the Jewish people on a daily basis from enemies who have no integrity.
He understood that to be right is not enough. One has to explain and discuss and persuade. I recall when he was in Johannesburg how he addressed a meeting of senior religious leaders from across South Africa, many of whom came with preconceived negative opinions about Israel, and in humble and eloquent fashion he laid before them the facts of the situation in such a persuasive manner that he won hearts and minds on that day.
Kiddush Hashem is also about being an inspiring ambassador for Torah values to one’s fellow Jews. For Yehuda Avner, the State of Israel was never about a simple Jewish nationalism, but rather about a Jewish destiny deeply rooted in our divine mission received at Sinai. His love for the land and people of Israel emerged naturally from his attachment to the Torah and to our founding fathers and mothers, Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov, Sarah, Rivkah, Rachel and Leah.
Avner was rooted in Torah, understanding deeply its compelling relevance to the most complex and pressing Jewish issues, bringing to his work the energy and inspiration of our sacred values. He never saw the establishment of the State of Israel as the beginning of something new, but rather the renewal of something old.
Yehuda Avner fulfilled the mitzva of kiddush Hashem at the highest level. “You are my servant Israel and through you I will be glorified” (Isaiah 49:3), G-d says about His greatest ambassadors. Yehuda Avner brought glory to G-d’s name wherever he went.
When he was representing the State of Israel to the nations of the world, he brought glory to G-d’s name and when he was representing Torah values to Israeli society, he brought glory to G-d’s name. And now that the Heavenly diplomatic core has gained one of its finest ambassadors, let us step forward, as a tribute to Yehuda Avner, and become great ambassadors bringing a message of derech eretz, kindness, faith, and justice to a world which so desperately needs these Torah values now more than ever.