The Death of Shimon Peres by Peter Eisenstadt and Ayala Emmett


President Peres President Abbas and Pope Francis plant an olive tree
President Peres President Abbas and Pope Francis plant an olive tree

The death of Shimon Peres last week has been the occasion of any number of fulsome eulogies and overwrought comparisons.   But the person who keeps coming to mind for us is Moses.

It’s not that we think that Peres was a prophet, ordained by God, or on some kind of a holy mission.   But there are similarities. If Peres did not quite reach Moses’ 120 years, he came about as close as people come these days. And like Moses he has been around forever, in a preternaturally busy political career of some seven decades. And like Moses shaping an Israelite people to enter the land, Peres was one the Founders of a Jewish state on that land. And both men were men of war and men of peace; ruthless and generous; conniving and ingenuous; narrow pragmatists and expansive idealists. And in the end both men were able to transcend their many contradictions.

But the main reason we are thinking about Moses is that Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur signify the almost final chapters of Deuteronomy, the last book of the yearly Torah reading. Deuteronomy is all about Moses, all the time. Moses the elder statesmen preparing to die and offering, for the last time, some of the wisdom he had accumulated over the decades and determined to seal a legacy.

images-133We pay attention to one of the last Torah portions, Ki Tavo, precisely because it focuses on coming to the land. That moment of arrival, though promised, is not to be taken for granted; it entails privileges and duties. The narrative opens with a clear expectation of the very first thing the Israelites are commended to do after the first harvest. Moses’ promise of a land of milk and honey is here unpacked to indicate that a plentiful harvest means a binary obligation to God and to fellow human beings. Prosperity in the form of a successful crop comes with an obligation to share it with those in need followed by taking a portion of the first fruit to the place of God’s dwelling.

Personal fortune obligates the individual to remember the collective and recite before the Kohen, the priest a shared history: My forefather was a fugitive Aramean. He went down to Egypt and there became a large nation. The Egyptians have enslaved us. God freed us by a mighty hand. Now I am bringing the first fruit of the land that You, God gave me. I am sharing my harvest with the Levite, the stranger, the orphan and the widow.

Framing individual privileges and obligations in a shared historic context, Moses goes on to list possible blessings and curses that might befall the Israelites as a collective in their new home. The theology of Deuteronomy is sometimes seen as simplistic; good things happen to people who do good things, and bad things happen to people who do bad things. But the point to keep in mind is that all the blessings and curses are collective, and will befall the Israelites collectively.

We are judged by the actions of our countrywomen and countrymen. Individual acts certainly matter but the blessings and curses Moses speaks of cannot be resolved to individual acts. God judges the Israelites collectively. Good acts are the personal obligation that we hope would produce a good, overall effect on others, and on society.   And at the same time, the Israelites then and we, here and in Israel, are tied to our fellow countrywomen and countrymen, and our fate is ultimately in the collective choice.

And Moses warned of the disastrous consequences of the wrong collective choice. “God will drive you, and the king you have set over you, to a nation unknown to you or your fathers, where you shall serve other gods…the life you face shall be precarious; you shall be in terror, night and day, with no assurance of survival. In he morning you shall say, ‘if only it were evening!” and in the evening you shall say ‘if only it were morning.”

Perhaps Moses, being the greatest of the prophets, knew that the Israelites would establish their people in the land, only to lose the land twice, and had a sense of the tenuousness of the Jewish presence there. He reminded the Israelites that the land would always remain God’s land, only conditionally leased to the people. And he knew that God, or history, can be a tough landlord.

Nitzavim, the next Parsha in Deuteronomy continues the same theme, culminating in the famous passage, “I set before you this day life and prosperity, death and adversity… I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life.” What is life? It is the fruit of our efforts, cultivating the best parts of ourselves, of growing and sharing our produce and the fruits of our vines. And that fruit will ripen only after careful individual and collective cultivation of the soil. Whether or not you believe that God works “with an outstretched arm and mighty power,” Moses is saying that everything we have, has been lent to us and given to us, for which we must be mindful and grateful. He reminds us that we never really own our land or our country or our lives.

Moses also understands that the legacy of a leader is critical. In the last Parsha of Deuteronomy we learn that Moses underscores its significance as he publicly recognizes Joshua as his successor and lays his hands to fill him with the spirit of wisdom.

What is Shimon Peres legacy? Was he able, at the end, to climb Mount Nebo and see a better future? It’s a complicated legacy as we have indicated. He was a friend of the settlements; an initiator of an unnecessary war in Lebanon, and unnecessary (and wildly counterproductive) targeted assassinations, and the list can be much extended. Oslo is now derided by both left and right as a failure, and a failure that was foreordained. Perhaps it was, and perhaps it wasn’t.

In his last political office as president Peres received what he had always so wanted, for the people to love him. This late love allowed him to be more clearly committed to peace, to make public statements and in the face of the Prime Minister’s opposition, to go with Mahmoud Abbas to Rome to plant an olive tree at the Vatican at the invitation of Pope Francis. History, however, never allows do-overs. Any future peace effort will look very different than Oslo.

Wisdom, the quality that Moses saw as the essence for his successor, is what Peres legacy would look like. The wisdom that peace requires agitators—pacifists, anti-war militants, refuseniks, and those who break the silence—and that peace also requires people in the center, established stateswomen and statesmen, who, with all their flaws, take chances for peace, and are willing to sacrifice their first fruits to make it happen. Peres was mostly in the latter camp and history will remember him kindly for it.