The Epitaph of Shimon Peres
“Man is a beggar when he thinks, and a prince when he dreams.”
I do not know if Shimon Peres was fond of Hölderlin’s poetry.
And it may seem incongruous to place, side-by-side, the Swabian poet obsessed with the Greek gods and the hero of Haganah, born in the forests of Poland and haunted to the end of his life by the specter of the destruction of the Jews.
But that is the phrase I had in mind as his friends from around the world gathered in Jerusalem, crowded around the modest grave in which the last of Israel’s founders was to be buried.
No doubt it is the word “prince” that draws me to the line from Hölderlin.
It was the air of a princely funeral permeating this corner of the national cemetery on Mount Herzl, where the country’s greatest leaders are interred.
And it was the spectacle of all of the crowned heads and heads of state — Barack Obama, François Hollande, King Felipe VI of Spain and Prince Charles of Britain — whom I saw gathered around his remains and who, when he was alive, whether in power or not, had viewed him as the wisest and noblest among them. His was a mysterious grace that often led peers to address the man they knew simply as “Shimon,” with the deference of a disciple questioning his rabbi.
But I also have the phrase in mind because of what it says about dreams.
It is because of the idea — an idea shared, I believe, by Shimon — of dreaming as the loftiest and most fecund of man’s faculties.
Deeply steeped in Jewish faith, Shimon was, of course, well versed in the Bible and the Talmud. As such, he believed that at the summit of the spiral of life reigned wisdom or prophecy, depending on one’s nature.
And he was, of course, a politician; and more than that a military leader; and, greater still, a strategist — that is, a leader who (in contrast to Yitzhak Rabin, for example) would calculate rather than strike, and time his punches rather than just throw them; a leader who, above all, had the wisdom to forge Israel’s army before others threw it into battle. More Gideon than Joab, more Joshua than Abner, he was one of those inspired generals that the Bible describes as practicing the art of signs before that of power. And that Shimon naturally tended to place a high value on deliberation, ruse and stratagem.
All of that is true.
But there also was in him the belief that, in the mental palace of a man of his sort, in its halls and chambers so replete with the art of warfare and the treasures of the Midrash, pride of place nevertheless went to the faculty — the power — that he called dreaming.
I remember him last year in Kiev at the Yalta European Strategy conference, where, as in past years, he rubbed elbows with some of the peer-disciples who, at his funeral, with yarmulkes covering their heads, bid him a deeply moving farewell.
In Kiev, our host, Victor Pinchuk, asked Shimon from the podium to reveal the source of his unalterable youthfulness.
He laughed the deep biblical laugh that overcame old Abraham upon hearing of the imminent birth of a child and the boundless adventures that would follow.
He burst into that hearty laughter steeped in the hiddush of unceasing Talmudic invention — just as the all-but-immortal body of Achilles was dipped, as the story goes, in the Styx — a laughter that is also the laughter of God as He played with the Leviathan.
Eventually Shimon answered: “It’s very simple. The sign of great age is contemplating the dreams that one has fulfilled. The measure of youth, by contrast, is the number of those still to come true.”
An extraordinary response, when you think about it.
Measuring the success of a life more on its promises than on its successes. Astonishing.
But the most astonishing of all was his way of saying to the masters of the world who had come to soak up his wisdom that a man who does not dream is a beggar, irremediably lacking, poor in mind and soul — and that no amount of intelligence is worthwhile unless it is propelled by a dream.
The dream of peace with the Palestinians.
The dream of an exemplary Israel that would no longer stand apart from the nations but would light their way with its exceptional qualities.
The dream of an Israel small in territory but great in (and great because of) its spiritual values.
The dream — a passing fancy? — of deserts enlivened by a deluge of computers such as he had imagined 30 years ago in a strange book that he coauthored with his friend Jean-Jacques Servan-Schreiber and that I published.
Or, finally, the dream of a union between that biblical knowledge of which he was one of the last Israeli leaders to master the subtleties and that artificial, electronic and hyper-technical intelligence to which his latter-day companions, the young geeks of the Peres Center for Peace in Jaffa, initiated him.
Those are the dreams that enabled Shimon to remain, at the age of 93, a young Zionist.
They are what kept him true, to the end, to the precept of Nachman of Breslov: “It is forbidden to be old.”
The death of Shimon Peres is not merely that of a “great man.” For many great men die every day without any consequence, except perhaps, as Rashi said, one more revolution of the great wheel of mourning in the world. No, Shimon’s death is the death of one of our last dreamers, of a statesman who, because he remembered that his country was born from a dream, could imbue it with the splendor and grace of that dream. His is the death of a dreaming prince who knew that, in the midst of the storm, the dream is not the braid and piping of politics, but the cloth itself.