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In the vast, austere entry hall to the Israel Museum, with its ultramodern monochrome walls, prismatic focal point, and symbiotic theme of shadow and luminescence, you happen upon a discordant figure: one of the Burghers of Calais, sculpted by the French master Auguste Rodin.
The original sextet of figures represents the city fathers of Calais who surrendered themselves to save their besieged city during the Hundred Years’ War. With heads and feet bare, ropes around their necks, and the keys of the town in their hands, the burghers were brought before the English king Edward III who ordered them beheaded.
Although their lives were eventually spared, Rodin has rendered their images as they prepare to meet what they believe will be their end, their respective expressions spanning the gamut from stoicism to despair.
As jarring as the image may appear in this contemporary setting, the story resonates deeply with ancient Jewish tradition. In the Yom Kippur liturgy, there figures prominently the narrative of the 10 Martyrs, the talmudic sages who received the Heavenly decree that their deaths would atone for the sins of their generation and deflect Divine wrath from their people. They too went to meet their end stoically, but without despair.
Martyrdom is not something we seek, but there are times that call for self-sacrifice of one kind or another. In this generation of selfish individualism, entitlement, and personal autonomy, we can look to the past to remind us that tribalism, senseless violence, and identity politics are all symptoms of a society that has forgotten how to commit itself to a higher sense of purpose, and that only by setting aside our superficial differences can we survive as one people.