Remembering Shimon Peres z”l

It is somehow fitting that Shimon Peres z”l leaves the earth in the last week of the year. With Rosh Hashanah right around the corner our collective eyes are  looking forward, preparing to step into the future. Shimon Peres only looked forward and marched only ahead. He embodied optimism; despite consistent opposition from  pragmatists and realists, Shimon Peres dared always to dream of a better tomorrow. “Optimists and pessimists die the exact same death,” he once said, “but they live very different lives!” He lived and died an optimist, through and through.

Shimon Peres’ story mirrored the story of the State of Israel. The last of the generation of Israel’s founders, Peres served in the Knesset longer than just about anyone, held positions in more governments than just about anyone, and played significant, even decisive, roles in every decade of Israel’s history. I picture him accompanying his mentor David Ben-Gurion, in debate with his constant rival Yitzhak Rabin, joining the government of his longtime frenemy Ariel Sharon, and, finally, serving as Israel’s 9th President. It’s simply impossible to think about Israel over the past seventy years without also thinking about Shimon Peres.

Some years ago, as part of a group of rabbis traveling in Israel, I had the good fortune to meet Shimon Peres. For the only time in his adult life, he was not in government, instead using his time and his seemingly boundless energy, to help develop Israel’s fledgling hi-tech sector. Impeccably dressed – I don’t think I ever saw Peres in anything other than a suit and tie – he exuded sophistication and ebullience. Great things were on the horizon, he assured us, and he was right. The start-up boom was in its infancy and Israel’s bio-tech and pharmaceutical industries were still gathering steam. Even out of office, Shimon Peres was cheerleading and networking and helping to build the future.

Last summer, Nomi and I visited the Peres Center for Peace, the last of Shimon Peres’ great projects. He wasn’t in that day, but we got to visit his personal library and to see his office suite on the center’s top floor. The Peres Center sits directly on a beach in Jaffa – in the 1940s a drop off location for illegal Jewish immigrants – commanding a stunning view of the Mediterranean, adjoining a century’s old Christian cemetery, nestled in a mixed neighborhood. The building’s location and stunning modernist design together bespeak the man. Zionist leader, state builder, idealist, peacemaker, and more besides.

We noted too that every member of the Peres Center staff whom we met seemed to be a third of the former President’s age (or younger!). Already past 90, Shimon Peres sought out the company of, and surrounded himself with, young adults. The past, which he had a major hand in shaping, was past. He cared about, dreamed about, planned for, only the future. He leaves us all with an extraordinary legacy of determined optimism, clear-eyed pragmatism, great style, abiding humor, and, yes, relentless optimism. Y’hi zikhro barukh. May the memory of Shimon Peres z”l ever be a blessing.

Look Back, Move Forward – Shabbat Ki Tavo 5776(2016)

As we inch toward Rosh Hashanah and the beginning of a new year, I have the Roman god Janus on my mind. Janus, for whom the month of January is named, had two faces, one that looked back and one that looked forward. Contra the well known advice of the Rolling Stones and the great Peter Tosh to “keep on walking and don’t look back,” the image of Janus teaches that moving meaningfully into the future actually requires a simultaneous gaze in the rear view mirror. Janus’s reggae refrain would be something like “keep on walking while you look back.”

The closing passage of Parashat Ki Tavo strikes a similar note. Moses gathers the people for his final address to them, all of which by the way have been framed as reviews of the Israelites’ past, and begins his valedictory address with this pair of statements: “You have seen all that Adonai did before your very eyes in the land of Egypt, to Pharaoh and to all his courtiers and to his whole country: the wondrous feats that you saw with your own eyes, those prodigious signs and marvels. Yet to this day Adonai has not given you a mind to understand or eyes to see or ears to hear.” [Deuteronomy 29:2-3] You saw with your own eyes, and you didn’t really understand your own experience until now, forty years later.

The Talmudic rabbis (Talmud Bavli, Avodah Zarah 5a-b) squeeze two provocative notions out of these lines. First, they read the Israelites as ingrates, the descendants of ingrates (k’fuyei tovah b’nei k’fuyei tovah) unable until well after the fact to recognize the good that has been done to and for them, let alone feel and express gratitude for it. Thankfulness requires some distance; in the heat of the moment, stepping back in order to see the good can be difficult, perhaps impossible. It’s not too late, suggest the rabbis; indeed, it’s never too late.

The second idea consists of the claim “that it may take one forty years to know the mind of one’s master.” Lessons taught take time, and perspective, and maturity, before they’re actually learned. There is a bit of self promotion on the part of the rabbis here. After all, their business is the education of the next generation of students. A forty year career is not a bad thing to contemplate. Their larger point, however, brings me a lot of comfort. Learning takes a lifetime and it’s not too late to make sense of lessons taught decades ago.

The last week of Elul, the last week of 5766, begins just after Shabbat Ki Tavo. The parashah’s closing lines serve as an urgent invitation to us to look back in order to move forward, to step back in order to note the good done on our behalves over this past year, and to pull out the old notebooks in order to make sense of lessons long ago taught and still waiting to be learned. Keep on walking as you look back.

Shabbat Shalom.

Boundaries and Sweeping Out Evil – Shabbat Shoftim 5776(2016)

In a mere handful of sentences, the Torah offers up statements of norms and values regarding the violation of boundaries, the offering of malicious and false testimony, and the eradication of evil. It’s quite a trio. How, if at all, do they connect?

Let’s start with boundary violations. “You shall not move your countryman’s landmarks, set up by previous generations, in the property that will be allotted to you in the land that the Lord your God is giving you to possess.” [Deuteronomy 19:14]

In context, this norm prohibits moving a landmark further into your neighbor’s property in order to expand your own. Good fences make good neighbors; moving fences makes for theft, plain and simple. The verse’s second clause, “set up by previous generations,” opens the way to broader application. In Professor Jeffrey Tigay’s words: “In halakhic literature this admonition against encroachment was widely expanded to encompass other types of misappropriation, such as wrong attributions of rabbinic dicta, and eventually to copyright violations.” The broader concept is known as hasagat gevul or ‘moving landmarks,’ and it refers to inappropriate line crossing of many kinds. Just take Tigay’s terms ‘encroachment’ and ‘misappropriation’, and let you imagination run free with them. Even more than physical landmarks, emotional and spiritual boundaries serve real and legitimate purposes. By and large, they’re meant not to be violated.

False testimony, by definition, crosses a major boundary. The fact that the Torah articulates a rather forceful norm on the subject makes clear that ours is not the first generation to face scheming and untruthful witnesses. A glance at cable television news any night of the week during this election cycle makes the point regarding our time. The Torah adds an important wrinkle. Scheming testimony has consequences; the court actually has an obligation to impose a penalty on the false witness. Shrugging our shoulders and chalking it up to human nature doesn’t cut it.

The imposing of a penalty, says the Torah, is a way to sweep out evil from your midst. That phrase, a favorite of the author(s) of Deuteronomy, appears a handful of time, all but this one regarding cases of capital punishment. What gets swept away, the evil or the evil-doer? Or, asked differently, what do we define as evil – the actor or the act? R. Shmuel David Luzzatto, a 19th century Italian commentator, has a clear and far reaching answer. “This is the paradigm for every (place in which the Torah states) ‘you will sweep out evil,’ namely that it concerns the misdeed…” and not the doer of that deed, even in a capital case.

“Evil” is in the news these days (when isn’t it?!?). How we think about it, let alone what we do about it, very much matters. Alas, it’s a topic replete with false and misleading testimony and misappropriation of boundaries. The Torah was onto something significant in placing these normative discussions next to one another.

Shabbat Shalom.