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NITZAVIM 5777 - Shimon Peres z”l

NITZAVIM 5777

Shimon Peres z”l

The past 3 months have been hard for the Jewish people because we’ve lost 2 giants: Elie Wiesel on July 2nd, and this week, former Israeli Prime Minister and President Shimon Peres.

This morning, I want to speak of the significance of Shimon Peres and those who attended his funeral yesterday in Jerusalem. The prophet Isaiah (chapter 60) in last week’s Haftorah—2600 years ago—predicted that the nations of the world will turn to Jerusalem to dispel the darkness that rules in the days preceding Messiah. The prophecy goes on to say that the kings of the world will come to Jerusalem, gathering together en masse, in the end of days.

Whether or not Shimon Peres’ funeral is a harbinger of messianic times, the gathering of this many world leaders in Jerusalem is a truly unique event and a testament to the respect and love felt for Shimon Peres, the last of Israel’s “founding fathers.”

President Barak Obama was there. When he spoke I couldn’t help but notice the irony. Obama began his presidency by going to Cairo—speaking to the Arab world. He told them in that address, which was his debut on the international stage, that there had been war long enough, and that they should reach out and make peace with each other and with Israel. And then he went home.

He left Israelis nervous, upset and apprehensive. They asked—with good reason—how the president could have been less than an hour away from Israel and yet had chosen not to go there. Until then, Israel had felt that there was truly non-partisan support for Israel—especially among Democrats. But after this trip, Israelis were alarmed. They asked: is this new president going to be different in his attitude towards us than his predecessors have been? Does it mean anything that his middle name is Hussein? Are we in for difficult times with our closest ally in the world?

And now, in the closing days of his administration, he goes to Jerusalem with Bill Clinton and leaders of Congress from both sides at his side to bid a last sad farewell to Shimon Peres. We wonder what would it have been like if he had come 7 years sooner?

There was one more surprising tribute to Shimon Peres. At the last minute Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas decided to attend. In fact he shook hands with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Both are on opposite sides of a divide that seems unbridgeable and here we had this brief moment of some sort of reconciliation. In a world with so much name calling, demonizing, and hostility between these 2 sides, this is almost messianic in scope

What do you think that Shimon Peres will be remembered for? I confess that I have not been a great fan of Peres over the years. The left wing polices of his labor governments I believe almost ruined Israel’s economy—with over 20% inflation as opposed to now with less than 2% inflation. But I did admire him for doing 2 almost contradictory things. On the one hand, in the early days of the state, he was the head of the Defense Department, and he was the one whom Ben Gurion entrusted to go to France and negotiate for the sale, not only of war planes and ships, but for the sale of uranium and for help in building a nuclear facility at Dimona. Peres—more than anyone—was responsible for Israel becoming a nuclear power—the world’s worst kept secret.

That was an amazing achievement! It made every Arab country that might think of invading Israel hesitate and consider what Israel could do in response. And for that alone, for making Israel a country that you knew you could not destroy except at the cost of your own existence—for this achievement alone—Shimon Peres deserves the gratitude of the Jewish people.

But at the same time, Shimon Peres will be remembered mostly for an opposite goal—a goal that he did not achieve in his lifetime. He dreamed that peace with the Palestinians was somehow possible and worked tirelessly towards it.

There’s a story that is told about him that makes the point. Peres was once invited to explore the possibility of peace with a delegation from the PLO at a secret location. The meeting dragged on and on and on and it soon became clear that it was going to go nowhere. Peres’s aides said to him: “We’ve been here for hours, and it’s clear that we’ve made no progress. Let’s pack up and go home.”

          Peres replied: “I can see that we’re getting nowhere. I can see that the demands that these people are making are completely unrealistic, just as you can. But do you know why I want to stay as long as there is any tiny chance at all that we may achieve some sort of a breakthrough? Because I would much rather waste 5 hours here than spend 5 minutes on the battlefield killing each other.” And so they stayed.

Shimon Peres never succeeded in persuading even his own party—much less the rest of the country—that peace with the Arabs was possible, or that it was worth the risks and the sacrifices that it would require. But I believe that the dreams of Shimon Peres are not as naïve as many of us may think. I believe that just as no one where he was born in Poland would have ever believed the day would come when the leaders of the world would come to Jerusalem to pay tribute to a Jew who was originally named Persky from Poland, so who can say what other dreams may yet come true?

In tribute to Shimon Peres with all his faults…and in tribute to the dream with which he lived, Y’hi zichro baruch. May the memory of Shimon Peres be a source of blessing…and may Israel soon come to see the fulfillment of his dream of peace.  Amen!

                                      Rabbi Mark Hillel Kunis 

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