The annual convention of the Rabbinical Assembly, the international professional association of Conservative/Masorti rabbis, will take place this coming week in Jerusalem. In my capacity as President of the RA, as it’s commonly referred to, it will be my great honor to formally introduce Shimon Peres, the President of the State of Israel, at a reception that he is hosting for us in his official residence, known as Beit Hannasi.
Much of the work involved with the RA presidency is routine and administrative, but periodically, I am afforded the opportunity to do or participate in something memorable and special. At my installation last year in Atlanta, I was privileged to introduce the Vice President of the United States as he addressed our convention, and that was certainly a moment I shall not forget. Visiting the White House and speaking with the President was similarly exhilarating, and just this past February I had the opportunity to meet the President of France at a reception in Elysee Palace. I am sure that introducing Shimon Peres will be similarly unforgettable.
I have spent a good part of this week trying to come up with the right words that might be equal to the moment, and I am obliged to admit that seeing YouTube clips of former President Clinton paying President Peres eloquent tribute, and Barbara Streisand singing to him, have been more than a little intimidating. The greatest figures in the world of politics and the arts have lined up to celebrate this momentous birthday. Me? Well, I think that being President of the Rabbinical Assembly is a great honor, but I know my place in the pecking order of life. Though I am no stranger to speaking at significant moments in people’s lives, I am also no one’s idea of a celebrity. After all the tributes great and small that President Peres has heard in the past week, what can I possibly say?
Since I am reasonably sure that most of you reading this are not going to be at the gathering at President Peres’ residence (and to my colleagues who are, I apologize in advance), here is the essence of what I hope to say at that special moment. In truth, even were I not introducing President Peres, this is essentially what I would want to say in tribute to him as he celebrates his ninetieth birthday.
One of the most politically and socially astute (and timeless!) verses that is to be found in the Bible is Proverbs 29:18, where the author– in four words– manages to convey a world of meaning. B’ein hazon, yiparah ahm. Without a compelling vision, the social cohesiveness of a people is at risk, and as likely as not to come apart. Vision is what moves us forward as a collective, what makes a loose aggregate of people with different ideas into something larger than themselves. Without it, every person pursues only his/her narrow self-interest, and the collective as a whole becomes almost entirely irrelevant.
One could spend a good deal of time reciting a record of Shimon Peres’ achievements in the service of the Jewish people, and it would read like a history of the calamity that befell our people in Europe during the Shoah, and the rebirth of the Jewish people in the State of Israel. A former Prime Minister, a member of no less than twelve governing cabinets, including serving as the Sar Habitahon (Secretary of Defense) who authorized the 1976 raid on Entebbe, a Nobel Laureate for Peace along with the late Prime Minister Rabin, and on and on… the list is much more than impressive. It is, truth to tell, almost incomprehensible in its scope.
But it seems clear to me that Shimon Peres’ greatest contribution is not to be found in any of the stellar accomplishments that his resume attests to. It is, rather, in the scope, and the sheer, utterly stubborn persistence of his vision for a better time, and a better Israel.
Living the history that he has lived, losing much of his family in the Shoah in his native Poland and finding his way to Israel to play a crucial role in the founding of the State of Israel, Shimon Peres’ life did not lack for obstacles and roadblocks. He has known both the sweetness of success and the bitterness of defeat, and along the way to this moment, there were ample opportunities for him to despair. No one would have blamed him. But not only did he not succumb to that temptation, he actually transcended it. In the face of an unrelentingly frustrating, difficult and even dangerous present, President Peres has managed always to see above and beyond, to imagine something much, much better, especially for his beloved Israel. In so doing, has enabled all of us to climb onto his metaphorical shoulders and see what he was seeing. The view from there was invariably exciting and uplifting, and it continues to be to this very day.
Of Shimon Peres, on his 90th birthday, it might fairly be said, paraphrasing the words of Israel’s national anthem, od lo avdah tikvato– his hope is not yet lost. And because of that, we, too, can say od lo avdah tikvateinu; our hope also is not los
Ad me’ah v’esrim, President Peres, bivri’ut! Onwards towards one hundred and twenty, in good health! And thank you for never losing your vision; the Jewish people both in Israel and the Diaspora are eternally in your debt.