Sleep evaded me last night. The news of the death of Shimon Peres, z”l, weighed heavily on my mind. The melancholy has stayed with me all day as I read the myriad tributes from those who knew him best as well as global leaders who have been touched by his diplomatic efforts these past many decades. With mournful Israeli music in the background, I struggle to find the words to explain my sadness.
I did not know Shimon personally. I am not Israeli. And I don’t typically grieve for well-known figures.
So why am I so sad?
Shimon lived a full life. Since the time of Moses, it has been our tradition to hope for a life-span of 120 years, and while he didn’t quite get there, at 93, he got awfully close. And what he accomplished in his 93 years is nothing short of remarkable.
It is not for him alone, however, that I lament. Shimon Peres was the last link to the founding generation of the modern state of Israel. He and his contemporaries were featured prominently in the history books of my childhood. They made the deserts bloom; they defended the land with their strength. Eventually, when they were no longer needed to be soldiers, they shaped the political and societal landscape of the nascent nation.
The Israel of my youth was found in books like “The Children of Israel” by Samuel and Tamar Grand. Though clearly dated, it chronicles the lives of different Israeli children and heavily influenced my image of a country where children rode on tractors, ate steamed corn as a treat, and brought their wooden flutes with them on hikes that took place on the paths walked by our Biblical ancestors. Imagine my shock when, on my first visit to Israel, I didn’t see a single tractor. Nor was anyone wearing a kova tembel, the hat worn by kibbutzniks until the 1970s.
My idealized notion of Israel included governmental leaders who had literally built the country with their own hands. Shimon Peres, alongside Yitzchak Rabin, Golda Meir, and others, understood what was at stake should the Zionist enterprise fail. Having seen a people rise up from the ashes of the Holocaust, they were keenly aware that failure was not an option.
Shimon was not a perfect leader; in fact, he openly spoke of his failings. But at the time of life when so many enjoy the comforts of retirement, he increased his efforts as a global ambassador for Israel and for a peaceful Middle East and by continuing to serve in governmental positions up until just a few years ago. As times changed, so did he. Even until the very end of his life, he continued to refine his approach to creating a lasting peace for future generations. Though disappointed that it remained just beyond his grasp, Shimon maintained an unwavering belief that a lasting peace will be a reality someday.
You children have yet to know a time when Israel was not under some sort of attack. With the founding generation now gone, I pray that more leaders like Peres will emerge. Leaders who cling to the belief that there will be peace. A lasting peace. Leaders who never stop dreaming of a world where the children of Abraham can dwell alongside each other. And who understand the sacrifices made by a generation of ragtag farmers and soldiers who, through their heroic efforts, bequeathed to us the reality of a homeland promised to us nearly four millennia ago.
I pray that Shimon Peres’s name be known to you and future generations as an architect of peace and blessing. And may his vision of an enduring peace in Israel and throughout the world come to be in your lifetime.