Many have already written about the extraordinary scene we witnessed last Friday: the funeral of Shimon Peres, an extraordinary man who led an extraordinary nation.
The exceptional scene was made even more remarkable by the fact that it took place on the morning before Parshat Nitzavim would be read in the synagogues (a fact which President Obama alluded to in his speech) and just a few days before Rosh Hashana.
Peres himself was, of course, an extraordinary person. It’s not that everyone agreed with his positions or his actions. I certainly didn’t. And it seems that neither did just about anyone else; in fact, during his long political career he managed to do at least one thing that angered pretty much everybody. But, as Herb Keinon pointed out last week in the Jerusalem Post, the flip side of that is that he also did something else that just about everyone approved of. And as Amotz Asa-El wrote (also in last week’s Post), it was in the final phase of his career, when he led the country as President, that he became the collective grandfather that the country adored and the world almost universally respected.
Asa-El also pointed out that the extraordinary nature of the event goes beyond Peres himself. After all, Peres’s life story mirrored the path traveled by his entire nation during that same time period. When Shimon was born in Poland shortly after World War I, the Jewish people were not in a good situation, by any measure. But his funeral in Jerusalem 93 years later took place in an entirely different reality that was frankly unfathomable even just a few decades ago ,when Peres was Prime Minister.
The sight of the leaders of over seventy nations flying to Jerusalem on two days’ notice to pay their final respects to a retired statesman from a tiny country of 7.5 million people may be completely unprecedented in human history. And its full significance might become a bit clearer if we ponder another interesting fact: On the day of Peres’ funeral, in accordance with a proclamation issued by President Obama, flags were flown at half-mast at U.S. government buildings around the world. It turns out that it is quite rare for the U.S. to honor a foreign leader this way. In fact, only seven other people have ever been accorded this sign of respect. Here’s the full list:
- 1961 – U.N. Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjold
- 1965 – British Prime Minister Winston Churchill
- 1981 – Egyptian President Anwar El-Sadat
- 1995 – Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin
- 1999 – Jordanian King Hussein
- 2005 – Pope John Paul II
- 2013 – South African revolutionary and President Nelson Mandela
Together with Peres, this means that a total of eight foreign leaders have been honored this way by the U.S.A.
Now look again at this list of the eight people who, according to the world’s greatest democracy, have made the most positive impacts on the world. Two out of the eight were Israeli Prime Ministers (making Israel the only country represented more than once). Another two were Arab leaders who were honored for making peace with Israel. And one can also add that Winston Churchill’s greatest achievement was helping to defeat Nazi Germany, and that Pope John Paul II was noteworthy to a very large extent because of the significant steps he took to improve his church’s relations with the Jewish People. That leaves only two of eight great people whose mark on humanity didn’t relate very directly to the tiny nation known as the people of Israel.
Which brings me to the incredible timing of Peres’ funeral, the morning before Shabbat Parshat Nitzavim. It was, after all, in yesterday’s Torah portion that we read the Biblical prophecy promising that one day, after centuries of exile, we will return to our land:
“It will be that when all these things have come upon you – the blessing and the curse that I have presented before you – that you will take it to your heart among all the nations where Hashem, your God, has dispersed you. And you will return unto Hashem your God and listen to His voice…then Hashem, your God, will bring back your captivity and have mercy upon you, and He will gather you in from all the peoples to which Hashem, your God, has scattered you. If your dispersed will be at the ends of heaven, from there Hashem, your God, will gather you in and from there he will take you. Hashem, your God, will bring you to the Land that your forefathers possessed and you shall possess it; He will do good to you and make you more numerous than your forefathers.” (Devarim 30:1-5, Artscroll translation)
The sight of all these world leaders flocking to Jerusalem – the sovereign capital of the Jewish people, regardless of where their embassies are – to pay their respects to the last of Israel’s founding fathers marks another stage in the manifest fulfillment of this prophecy.
It is also eloquent testimony to the fact that the entire world recognizes the importance of the Jewish People. For some reason, many of us often have trouble understanding this, but pretty much the entire rest of the world sees it. This makes Peres’ funeral an incredible Kiddush shem Shamayim, sanctification of God’s name.
And the Kiddush Hashem was greatly magnified and increased by the fact that Peres himself, a man not who was not generally associated with religion, specifically asked in his will for the prayer Avinu Malkeinu to be sung there.
Was there some kind of Divine inspiration behind this? Could Peres have possibly known that he would be buried so close to Rosh HaShana? I have no idea. But it is incredibly fitting that this was the final point in the great and long legacy of Shimon Peres: The scene of the leaders of most of the world’s nations solemnly listening to a Rosh Hashana prayer, less than 72 hours before the Jewish people will gather to recite that very prayer, as well as many others for the peace and well-being of the entire world.
Rabbi Alan Haber