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Contemporary Ushpizin: Shimon Peres

October 26, 2016

I have been listening to a really great podcast called “Presidential”  (https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/business/presidential-podcast/) .  They started it 44 weeks before the election and each week talk about a different president.  One of the host’s go-to questions that she asks every week is “What would it be like to be set up on a date with this president?”  It helps her interviews to think about the person in a very different way.

In the episode on Abraham Lincoln, one of the Lincoln experts that was interviewed said something really interesting.  She said that there are certainly lots of really big, important questions that she would love to ask Lincoln:

  • What would you have done in your second term had you not been assassinated? How would reconstruction have looked under your leadership?
  • What do you think of the state of racial relations in the US today?
  • Etc.

But if given the chance to have dinner, or a date with Lincoln, this expert would simply say, “Mr. Lincoln, can you please tell me a story?”  Because it was through his stories and his ability to captivate that Lincoln was truly unique.  And that is how one could best experience Lincoln.

I want to use this as a way to introduce the topic of Ushpizin – the historical, imagined guests that we invite to join us in the sukkah each day of the holiday.  Traditionally we symbolically invite a great figure from Jewish history to share the meal with us – Avraham, Yitzchak, Ya’akov, Yosef, Aharon, Moshe and David.  Many have added the custom to invite female counterparts to join us as well.

And today I would like to focus on a more recent “ushpiz” historical figure that I would love to be able to share a meal with.  That person is Shimon Peres, who of course recently passed away after a remarkable career serving the State of Israel in so many different capacities.

I will always think of Peres in terms of some unique circumstances around his funeral.  My brother works for the State of New York and was supposed to be part of the governor’s delegation to attend the funeral.  But at the last minute Gov. Cuomo was unable to attend the funeral because of the train crash that happened in Hoboken.  So my brother went by himself representing the State of New York.  That in itself is pretty cool, but after the funeral and Shabbat when my brother was supposed to fly home and then come spend Rosh Hashanah with us in Baltimore, the El Al pilots decided to go on strike.  So my poor brother was stuck spending Rosh Hashanah in Jerusalem on El Al’s dime.

Anyway, I want to share some thoughts and reflections about Peres and hopefully connect them to Sukkot.

One of Peres’ most impressive accomplishments was his ability to secure arms for the fledgling State of Israel in 1948, and perhaps even more impressive, his role in Israel to achieve nuclear capacities in 1948.  I share with you a description from Ari Shavit’s book My Promised Land.  Shavit is a very outspoken leftist journalist in Israel.  I do not agree with most of what he says, but his book was a really enlightening and sometimes painful read.  But no matter what you think of Shavit or his politics, his chapter describing Israel’s ascent to nuclear power is amazing.  As he writes:

Ari Shavit My Promised Land.  “The Project, 1967”

In 1956, only three nations possessed nuclear weapons: The US, The USSR and the UK.  Even France would produce and assemble a nuclear bomb only four years later.  In contrast to those wealthy countries, the Israel of 1956 was a fragile immigrant state of 1.8 million people not yet capable of manufacturing even transistor radios.  The mere thought that this tiny, weak nation would succeed in obtaining nuclear capabilities seemed audacious, megalomaniacal; even unhinged. And yet the founder of the Jewish State [Ben Gurion] was adamant: Israel must acquire a nuclear option… (p. 178)

There was actually much internal disagreement among the Cabinet whether Israel should pursue nuclear capacities.

Shavit continues:

Ben Gurion remained undeterred. In the summer of 1956, he sent his sorcerer’s apprentice, Shimon Peres, to Paris to wield his wand. Improbably the director general of the Defense Ministry got what he came for.  He deftly manipulated the anti-Arab sentiment of the Suez era and the pro-Jewish sentiment of a decade after Vichy, and he appealed to the bruised patriotic ego over Algeria, the demise of colonialism, and the decline of Europe.  In a very short time, the thirty-three-year-old graduate of the Ben Shemen Youth Village School – a student of the pacifist Siefgried Lehmann – pulled off one of the greatest strategic feats of the postwar years, persuading a major European power to give a minor Middle Easter nation its own nuclear option…Ben Gurion’s vision, Peres’s cunning, and the diligent work of a few other Israelis who joined Peres in Paris convinced France to place in Israel’s hands the modern ages’ Prometheus ‘fire.  For the first time in history, the Jews could have the ability to annihilate other peoples.  (p. 179)

It is just amazing to think that Peres was able to do.

Another interesting thing about Peres, and this is something that was really news to me.  I grew up with my first memories of him in the 1990’s when he and Yitzchak Rabin were championing the Peace Process.  But Peres and Rabin were actually bitter rivals for most of their lives.  They hated each other.  One of the miracles of the Peace Process is that they were able to work together.

Over Yom Kippur I read a story from Yehuda Avner’s book The Prime Ministers.  The author served as a top advisor to seven Israeli prime ministers.  In 1977 he was a top advisor to Rabin when Rabin had to resign as prime minister over a controversy involving Rabin’s wife opening illegal bank accounts.  Peres was going to take over the premiership.  Yehuda Avner got word that Peres would offer him a job as advisor, but he confided to Rabin that he would not accept the job because of his loyalty to Rabin.  “It is too difficult under the circumstances.”  To which Rabin responded:

“Shtuyot!”  Rubbish!  You were never involved in my differences with Shimon Peres, and I’m not going to let you get involved now.”

“That’s easier said than done,” I muttered.

“Maybe, but by what moral right will you say to the next prime minister of Israel that you refuse to work for him because of me?  If Shimon Peres as the same view of you as I do – and I think he has – that’s all that matters.  Must everything be a matter of personal allegiances?  What about the country?  What about the people?  You have no right to refuse him.  You’re not a politician, you’re a civil servant.  Keep it that way.” (334)

This story ties in so well with the holiday of Sukkot.  When we sit in the Sukkah we are making a statement that our material possessions are not that important.  We are far more concerned with our relationship with Hashem and keeping our priorities straight.  So we leave the comfort of our home and we live in the sukkah for a week.

This same attitude was true for Rabin, Peres and the entire “founding generation.”  They were able to maintain a sense of the big picture and do what was right.  It was that ability to keep priorities straight that helped Peres become the great leader that he was.

[Another aspect of Peres that has gotten a lot of coverage is his unending optimism.  As President Obama remarked in his eulogy:

Shimon Peres reminds us that the State of Israel, like the United States of America, was not built by cynics. We exist because people before us refused to be constrained by the past or the difficulties of the present. And Shimon Peres was never cynical. It is that faith, that optimism, that belief — even when all the evidence is to the contrary — that tomorrow can be better, that makes us not just honor Shimon Peres, but love him.

This too connects very powerfully to the idea of the Sukkah.  Rabbi Jonathan Sacks notes that the Sukkah serves as a powerful and apt symbol for the Jewish experience through most of history.  We are familiar with the notion of the “wandering Jew.” For most of our history we were without a permanent home, and we had to be prepared to leave at a moment’s notice.  As Rabbi Sacks writes:

“Sitting in the sukkah underneath its canopy of leaves I often think of my ancestors and their wanderings across Europe in search of safety…”

He continues and says with this in mind, it would have made much more sense for the Sukkah to be associated with sadness and difficulty of life in galut.  But that of course, is not the case.  Rather we celebrate Sukkot as זמן שמחתנו – the time of our rejoicing.  This is because, as he explains, the Sukkah

“in all its vulnerability symbolizes faith: the faith of a people who set out long ago on a risk-laden journey across a desert of space and time with no more protection than the sheltering divine presence.”

Rather than get depressed over his ancestors’ search for safety, Rabbi Sacks begins to understand that the Sukkah emphasizes that “faith was their only home.  It was fragile, chillingly exposed to the storms of prejudice and hate. But it proved stronger than empires. Their faith survived. The Jewish people has outlived all its persecutors.”

So much like the Sukkah, Peres’ life and his outlook teach us that we have reason to be optimistic and to trust in a better future even when the present circumstances seem dire.]

I want to conclude with one more piece of Peres’ legacy.  A friend of mine from college, Michael Koplow is a writer and thinker about Israel.  He serves as the policy direct of the Israel Policy Forum.  He wrote a very insightful reflection on Peres’ life where he notes that much of Peres’ life was marked by failure.  Peres never won an election for Prime Minister and was only chosen as President because the Knesset, and not the general public made that decision.  When Peres was Prime Minister (following Rabin’s resignation in the 1970’s and Rabin’s assassination in the 1990’s), Peres did not win reelection in what should have been slam dunk victories.  My friend Michal Koplow wrote:

Rather than become the Adlai Stevenson of Israel, he became the Shimon Peres of Israel. He understood that failure was something that you overcome rather than something that defines you…By all rights, Peres should have disappeared from Israel’s political scene decades ago, yet the more time went on and the more electoral losses he racked up, the more influential and visionary he became…

Peres will go down as one of history’s greatest dreamers, but he was able to dream big because he was willing to stand on the rubble of his own previous failures of imagination.  (https://ottomansandzionists.com/2016/09/28/the-legacy-of-shimon-peres/)

This brings us to the final Sukkot connection.  Yesterday Gavi Gershowitz asked how it is that we can rejoice on Sukkot when it comes right on the heels of Yom Kippur when we have spent all day doing viduy and confessing our sins.

Some of you may have seen, on Yom Kippur I made available copies of Rabbi Avi Weiss’ speech in which he offered a viduy (confession) for all the good things we did in the previous year.  Indeed Yom Kippur can be depressing if we see the viduy as a means of beating ourselves up for all the mistakes we have committed.  For some people this approach works and is quite powerful, but for many it just leaves a bad taste with no constructive outlet.

The other approach though is to use our mistakes as opportunities to learn, grow and change.  This is the enduring legacy of Shimon Peres.  He could have easily got hung up on his failings and been bitter and depressed.  But that was not his reaction.  Peres used his many failures as growth and learning opportunities.  He became better as a leader and as a person because of them.

This is what we do on Sukkot.  The midrash comments that we leave Yom Kippur unsure of the verdict that was passed.  But on Sukkot we carry our lulav and etrog and proudly march through the streets like soldiers bearing arms.  We are confident and we are upbeat.

There is so much more to say about Shimon Peres but our time for now is done.  Perhaps we can all symbolically invite him to our tables for lunch today and continue the conversation.

 

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