Shimon Peres and Choosing Life
This week we mourn the loss of one of the founding fathers of the modern state of Israel, Shimon Peres, as we also celebrate the birth of a new Jewish year. Notably, Peres’ life is being commemorated both here in the US and in Israel, and the messages most often associated with his leadership are those of visionary dedication to both security and peace. Peres is lauded for a lifetime of service to the Jewish nation and thereby the Jewish people, and though his leadership included literal life and death decisions, his admirers can be proud of his record of valuing human life above all else.
This week we read some very important words in the Torah – words that help move us into the celebration of a New Year in the Jewish calendar, and also help us remember the values that Peres and other great Jewish leaders have to stand up and represent.
לֹ֥א בַשָּׁמַ֖יִם הִ֑וא לֵאמֹ֗ר מִ֣י יַעֲלֶה־לָּ֤נוּ הַשָּׁמַ֙יְמָה֙ וְיִקָּחֶ֣הָ לָּ֔נוּ וְיַשְׁמִעֵ֥נוּ אֹתָ֖הּ וְנַעֲשֶֽׂנָּה׃
It is not in the heavens, that you should say, “Who among us can go up to the heavens and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?” (Deuteronomy 30:12)
הַעִידֹ֨תִי בָכֶ֣ם הַיּוֹם֮ אֶת־הַשָּׁמַ֣יִם וְאֶת־הָאָרֶץ֒ הַחַיִּ֤ים וְהַמָּ֙וֶת֙ נָתַ֣תִּי לְפָנֶ֔יךָ הַבְּרָכָ֖ה וְהַקְּלָלָ֑ה וּבָֽחַרְתָּ֙ בַּֽחַיִּ֔ים לְמַ֥עַן תִּחְיֶ֖ה אַתָּ֥ה וְזַרְעֶֽךָ׃I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day: I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life—if you and your offspring would live—(Deuteronomy 30:19)
The first is an affirmation of the practical, achievable nature of the commandments in the Torah – Moshe reminds us that these mitzvot are not in the sky, and not across the sea. They are here, within reach of common men, women, and children. This is a core feature distinguishing Judaism – our practices do not rely on intermediaries, but rather challenge each of us individually, because they affirm our capacity and empower each human to strive towards self-fulfillment and communal engagement. This maxim is also cited in the Talmud, as well as by modern Rabbinic sources, as a proof-text enabling interpretation and commentary to diverge from the plain meaning of the text into midrash, legal discourse, and all our myriad layers of Rabbinic thought.
The second quote, which is relayed as part of the same message, emphasizes the fact that humans have free will. They have both the responsibilities and opportunities that come from this fact, and are offered guidance in how to use this power – to choose life over death. The goal of the commandments is to live by them, not die by them, and it is that message that informed Shimon Peres’ approach Israel’s policies, both foreign and domestic. Ever the optimistic opportunist, he worked tirelessly to ensure a vibrant future for his foundling country, and did much to move it towards increased security and peace. In 1994, he received the Nobel peace price along with Yitzchak Rabin and Yasser Arafat in honor of his role in moving Israel and the PA towards meaningful negotiations for a peaceful coexistence.
We can all take a page from Peres’ book, and our own book (the Torah) if we commit ourselves to a life guided by the understanding that meaning can indeed be found by each of us without ascending to heaven, and that it is through choosing life that we move closer to that goal.
Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom and a Shanah Tovah U’Metukah (a happy and sweet new year),