A View from the Pew: The festival of Sukot is called Z’man Simchataynu ” A Time for Rejoicing”. In Biblical times it was the greatest of the three pilgrimage festivals, celebrating the ingathering of the harvest. Jews from all across the Land of Israel and beyond would gather together in Jerusalem,to give thanks for their personal and communal blessings and to pay their taxes, to support both the religious life and the civic needs of Biblical Israel. The early rabbis, who in the first two centuries after the destruction of the ancient Temple and the independent political kingdom, assigned the special scriptural readings, for all of our Holy Days, chose Ecclesiastes as the Megillah to be read on the Shabbat of Sukot. This book is hardly the most uplifting and celebratory works of the Bible. One of the most often quoted passages of Ecclesiastes is from chapter three where we are told:
“For everything there is a season; a time for everything under the sun; a time to be born and a time to die.”
Throughout the book, the theme of inevitability and powerlessness, seems to nullify the challenging and comforting conclusion of the High Holy Day prayer Unetane Tokef where we are told that through Tshuvah, T‘filah and Tzedaka; Repentance Prayer and Acts of Charity we can temper the severity of even a Divine decree. Perhaps that is why these very same rabbis assigned Exodus 34, the story of Moses second ascent of Mount Sinai, as the Torah reading for the Shabbat of Sukot. After all, if Israel could be forgiven for building a golden calf and Moses for smashing the first set of the Ten Commandments,perhaps we too, both as individuals and as a community and society, can achieve atonement for our transgressions and mistakes, if we truly repent and in the spirit of the word T’shuvah,change our direction, and dedicate ourselves to Tzedaka both in its command to be charitable and in its root meaning of Justice, by working to create a more just society.
On both Yom Kippur which precedes Sukot by four days, and on the separate festival, of Atzeret Simchat Torah, which begins at the sundown ending the week of Sukot, Jewish traditions instructs us to recite Yiskor, prayers of memorial for loved ones who have died. This year I have added to my personal Yiskor prayers the name of President Shimon Peres.
The final chapter of Torah we will read on SimchatTorah next week, marks the end of the life and leadership of Moses. The week of Shimon Peres death, the opening words of the Torah reading were :”Atemm Nitzavm Hayom “All of you the People of Israel are standing here on the precipice of a new era;”. We the readers, as well as Moses, himself, are told that tough his life would come to an end, that the life of the Jewish People would continue.
The very same week that we read those words, at the end of the year, 5776, world leaders from more than 90 countries, and we Jews around the world, stood in respect, mourning the loss ofSimon Peres, who after 70 years of service as a leader of Israel, had died.
Similar to great leaders of every era, Shimon Peres was an imperfect man who made many mistakes. Like the Biblical Moses about whose wife and children we are told very little, in Torah, Peres was a man who kept his personal and public life separate. In both cases, we can assume that the families paid a price in sharing a husband and father with the world.
Similar to Moses, Peres was a leader who was willing and capable to do Tshuvah; to admit his mistakes and change direction. I gained firsthand knowledge of this, when I had the honor to work closely with Shimon Peres in 1982-83 as director of the US Labor Zionist Alliance. Peres was then the leader of a Labor party that was out of power. Shimon Peres, despite the political attacks from his opponents, both within his own party and from the opposition that was then in power, never lost his grace and dignity; his passion and compassion. It was during that year, in the wake of the Lebanon war, that Peres, who had been the wizard of building Israel s defense establishment; and had been an advocate for allowing the first Jewish settlements to be established at Gush Etziyon in the West Bank, after the 1967 war,made the pivot to the pursuit of peace with Palestinians, because he saw this as the only way to defend and grow a Jewish State of Israel.
Peres, who made Aliyah at age 11, as a teenager, became a devoted Zionist Socialist and an active leader in the middle of the 20th century Socialist International. When he served as Minister of Finance and Prime Minister in the 1980’s with his longtime political opponent Yitzchak Shamir, it was Peres who brought hyper-inflation under control and laid the ground work for “Start UpIsrael, by giving up his socialist orthodoxy, but never sought for himself special economic privilege. Even after leaving the Israel Labor Party a decade before his death, Peres always identified himself as a Labor Zionist.
The death decree of Shimon Peres is sealed, but his life does not have to end. If we are willing to keep telling his story from generation to generation; and hear in his life a challenging call to action, than Peres, like great political leaders and thinkers of ages past can continue to live through his words and his deeds; through his accomplishments and his failures. To truly honor the memory of Shimon Peres we must rededicate ourselves in 5777 to the pursuit of peace between the children of Isaac and Ishmael. For President Peres to truly rest in peace we must commit ourselves not to rest until we do our share in completing the task of bringing a lasting peace to the Middle East that will include a safe secure democratic and Jewish, State of Israel.
Neal I Borovitz