Parashat Nitzavim | October 1, 2016
Two days from now, on Monday morning we’ll gather together on the first day of Rosh Hashanah. Right about this time, well hopefully, a little earlier, we’ll come to the Haftarah chosen for that morning, chapter one in Shmuel Aleph, the first book of Samuel. We’ll read of a woman Hannah, coming before the Priests and God, praying to conceive a child. She pours her heart out in prayer and at the end of the reading we learn that Samuel was born. Samuel would go on to become the key prophet in the early days of the Kingdom of Israel, anointing first Saul and then David to serve as king.
In the first chapter of Shmuel Bet, the second book of Samuel, the power struggle between Saul and David has come to an end as Saul is killed in battle. David learns of this, the death of his key rival, rents his clothes and begins mourning. He recites what comes to be known as the Lament of David, his dirge for Saul and his son Jonathan. David begins:
הַצְּבִי, יִשְׂרָאֵל, עַל-בָּמוֹתֶיךָ, חָלָל: אֵיךְ, נָפְלוּ גִבּוֹרִים.
Your glory, O Israel, lies slain on your heights; How have the mighty fallen! (2 Samuel 1:19)
These words, איך נפלו הגבורים are surely appropriate today, as we continue to mourn the passing of one of modern Israel’s mighty heroes, Shimon Peres. At 93 years old, Peres lived for every day of Israel’s existence and his impact and image were felt in countless ways.
In the early days we saw him alongside David Ben-Gurion, becoming the protege of Israel’s first Prime Minister. He was part of the generation that studied and fought for the of the State of Israel, and he took part in its building. Before the age of 30 he was appointed to the defense ministry and as director general in 1956, he was crucial in bringing Israel its nuclear program. In the words of writer Ari Shavit, “(he) pulled off one of the greatest strategic feats of the postwar years, persuading a major European power to give a minor Middle Eastern nation its own nuclear option.” (My Promised Land, 179)
In the 70’s we saw him as defense minister for Yitzhak Rabin, together approving the operation in Entebbe, that saved the lives of Israeli hostages, and the operation in which Yoni Netanyahu fell. In the early 90’s we saw him as foreign minister, again alongside Rabin, opening negotiations with the Palestinians for the first time, eventually leading to the signing of the Oslo Accords, giving us a glimmer of what a peaceful future might look like. For many people in our community, we saw him in this very room, on this Bimah in 1997, continuing his pursuits of peace even while out of office.
In recent years, we saw Peres as President, respected in Israel and abroad as a statesman, continuing his work for peace, while also thriving amidst the Israeli technological revolution. You may have seen him staring in a YouTube video, looking for a new job after stepping down from office in 2014 at age 90. Seeing him working as a gas station attendant, a super market clerk, or even a stand-up comedian, while still offering sage advice to everyone he interacted with, shows a lot about the person he was.
And finally, we saw him laid to rest yesterday. With world leaders from all corners of the globe gathering together on Har Herzl, Israel’s national cemetery, we saw the immense respect the world had for this great leader. Flags across this country flew at half-staff in his memory, an honor that has been given only to the greatest of leaders.
I confess, that I did not truly appreciate Peres until his later years. Yes, I remember watching the signing of the Oslo Accords, but as a 4th grade student, I don’t think I really understood what was happening. When Peres became Prime Minister following the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, again I knew what had happened, but the significance was lost on that young 6th grader. No, it wasn’t until I was living in Israel during rabbinical school that I began to learn much more about the State’s history and leadership. During that year, it seemed like everyone I learned from or spoke to, had something good to say about Shimon Peres. Everyone respected him, looked up to him, and admired what he had done for the country throughout its history, and what he continued to do as President. But there was one moment in particular that stood out to me as my true awakening.
Peres once said, “In Israel, a land lacking in natural resources, we learned to appreciate our greatest national advantage: our minds. Through creativity and innovation we transformed barren deserts into flourishing fields and pioneered new frontiers in science and technology.” So it was no surprise that on March 6, 2012, Peres along with a delegation of Israeli leaders, was in Silicon Valley and took a tour of the Facebook headquarters. Led personally by Mark Zuckerberg, Peres learned about the work Facebook did in connecting the world, and also discussed one of Facebook’s offices coming to Tel Aviv. It was also on this occasion, that Peres first join Facebook himself. There’s a great picture of this moment, Zuckerberg showing Peres how and what to do. Once the page was set up, Peres made his first post.
“I am truly excited to write the first post on my wall. I hope to find this page to be a place where peace dreamers and believers speak up and share their stories and experiences with me. I have dedicated most of my life to make peace between countries and governments. Today I invite people from all around the world, from Europe, U.S.A, India, Latin America, Asia, Africa and specifically Iran, Lybia, Syria, and Egypt to join me and promote peace between the people. Facebook empowers us. So let’s dare to believe, start to change our world and create a better tomorrow. I want to hear your voice. If you are with me click like!”
It’s a simple but powerful message, and one that captures so much of his life. A place to be a dreamer and believer, to share stories and experiences. To be empowered to change the world and create a better tomorrow. That was the message that connected with me on that day, just as it had connected with so many others throughout his life. But part of what made him unique, what really drew me to him, was that he had earned the privilege of this worldview. There are many others who speak of peace and of building better tomorrows, but they can be seen as naive rather than optimistic. Peres though understood the world around him, the dangers, the threats, and still remained an optimist. The same person who brought Israel a nuclear program could hope to make peace with Iran. The same person who at first was in favor of building in the West Bank, could then advocate for a peaceful 2-state solution.
In American politics, these positions could earn someone the title of weak flip-flopper, but not so for Peres. With him, these changes, these evolutions came about as a result of his experience and his growing knowledge. He taught us we can in fact always continue learning and growing, and so too might our beliefs.
At the funeral yesterday, President Obama spoke of Peres’ legacy. “Shimon’s story,” he said, “the story of Israel, the experience of the Jewish people, I believe it is universal. It’s the story of a people who, over so many centuries in the wilderness, never gave up on that basic human longing to return home. It’s the story of a people who suffered the boot of oppression and the shutting of the gas chamber’s door, and yet never gave up on a belief in goodness. And it’s the story of a man who was counted on, and then often counted out, again and again, and who never lost hope.”
Israel is a country that we know has always been founded on hope. Tikvah. The hope that a people can be gathered together from the four corners of the world. The hope that a people can survive oppression and anti-Semitism throughout history and one day return to their home. It’s this hope, that Shimon Peres and the founding generation of Israel always stood for. And as the last of this generation, “How the mighty have fallen,” this responsibility now falls to the current and next generations. The responsibilities of leadership, of protection, of patience, of Hope – Tikvah, now lay in the hands of Bibi Netanyahu, Yair Lapid, Bougie Herzog and Stav Shaffir.
We always hope and pray that our leaders inspire us, and raise us up to what we can and should be. This is what Shimon Peres was always able to do. To inspire the optimism in us to build a state of Israel we can admire and call our own. As he once said, “optimists and pessimists die the same way. They just live differently. I prefer to live as an optimist.” That is his legacy. It was planting seeds in a garden and getting to see them grow. Using his optimism and his hope in creating the state of Israel and building it into what we know and love today. It is our hope – our Tikvah – that the leadership of Israel and of the Jewish community around the world, will continue this work and continue to build on this legacy.
May the memory of Shimon Peres always be for a blessing. Amen.