Everyone remembers a different Shimon Peres. For me it will be the prime minister who shepherded Israel through a unprecedented event: the assassination of its head of government.
I was just 17, a student who had arrived just ten weeks prior to study at Yeshivat Har Etzion in Alon Shevut. Har Etzion was and is a yeshivat hesder, combining Torah study and military service. As a foreign student, I was not (yet) heading to the army, but I had to learn how to handle an M-16 for guard duty. At the time, my Hebrew was poor and my knowledge of Israeli society was worse. But everything was new and exhilarating and wonderful.
But from the moment an older student slapped his hand on the bima in the beit midrash and we started saying Psalms on that night of Saturday, Nov. 4th, 1995, I knew something was seriously wrong. And the news just got worse. Prime Minister Rabin has been shot. He is dead. His killer is a Jew. His killer is an Orthodox Jew. His killer is a graduate of a hesder yeshiva.
We spent that night in shock; the next amid the crush of the people trying to get to the Knesset, where Rabin lay in state; and the day after going to the funeral. Not that our bus could actually get near Mount Herzl; the traffic was insane, the security tight. We ended up sitting on the bus listening to eulogies by world leaders, the first being President Clinton (the First?).
It was a fine speech, surely, and in its last paragraph, Clinton referenced the Torah portion, which we will also be reading this Tuesday, the Second Day of Rosh Hashanah: the Binding of Yitzhak. He declared: “As we all know, as Abraham, in loyalty to God, was about to kill his son, God spared Yitzhak. Now God tests our faith even more terribly, for he has taken our Yitzhak.”
A worthy notion, certainly. But then Shimon Peres, acting prime minister, arose and chose a different verse. It is what we read from the Prophets on the Second Day of Rosh Hashanah, God’s words to the weeping Rachel:
“Restrain your voice from weeping
And your eyes from tears;
For your work will be rewarded,” declares the Lord,
“And they will return from the land of the enemy.
There is hope for your future,” declares the Lord.
Peres spoke of his decades-long friend and sometimes bitter rival not as a martyr, not as a sacrifice, but as a tireless, demanding leader who had toiled ceaselessly all of his life and whose work had yet to be completed. We would mourn, but then we would take up the task yet again.
And when the new government of Israel convened two weeks later, with Shimon Peres as prime minister for the third time in his life, my rosh yeshiva, Rabbi Yehuda Amital was part of it, as Minister-Without-Portfolio. Peres wanted to get back to work, not point fingers at the religious or the settlers or the bnei yeshiva. And when he was voted out of office months later, he just went back to the Knesset, where he served almost uninterrupted for half a century, until he became Israel’s ninth president.
And unlike so many of those we have lost over the past seven years–Prime Ministers Yitzhak Shamir and Ariel Sharon, Presidents Ephraim Katzir and Yitzhak Navon–Peres never faded into obscurity in his later years. He never stopped working. His last act was just two week ago, as he posted a Facebook video in support of buying Israeli products. He was indefatigable, the last of Israel’s founding generation.
Jewish tradition says the First Day of Creation was actually today, the 25th of Elul. It is certainly a new world, without Shimon Peres, last of his generation. But he would assure us that it will be all fine–as long as we get back to the hard work of making Israel the State it has the potential to be.