A Psalmist Named Peres

October, 26 2016
Shimon Peres in 2013. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Shimon Peres in 2013. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

By Harold Ticktin

In all the rightful praise showered on Shimon Peres, I noticed only one reference to the fact that he “wrote poetry”—yet poetry goes to the essence of what he was all about. Peres drew on a tradition some 3,000 years old, the basic meter of the Psalms, a form to which both Judaism and Christianity are heavily bound.

In effect, perhaps without him even realizing it, he both spoke and wrote in parallelism. Canaanite in origin, the technique is simple. An opening line is followed by a second line, which modifies the first in a variety of fashions, (for the purpose of amplification, contrast or even antithesis). The technique can result in a third strophe, which modifies, confirms or contrasts its antecedents in the same manner.

Psalm 23 is a prime example: “The Lord is my shepherd [opener]; I shall not want [modifier]. / He maketh me to lie down in green pastures [climax].” It is this repetitive form that constitutes the essence of biblical poetry. The exact terms are fodder for academics, but for Peres they were the very essence of his speech. He absorbed the cadence so completely that it seemed virtually impossible for him to speak without indulging it. He was plucking branches from an old and sainted tree, clearly evident from his memorial praise of Yitzhak Rabin “Yitzhak always had a vision. At the same time he always remained down to earth.” Or: “He didn’t believe in pushing off tough decisions. The galloping horse of history doesn’t wait for those who hesitate.”

In his mid 90s his magic wand of parallelism never left him. In one of his last “recitals” in the Jerusalem Post, a 2016 column on Maimonides, I counted 21 such usages in a three-column article. Essentially the article sounded in the Psalmic rhythm: “For us the need for scientific progress is not a luxury. It is a condition of our survival.” “Do we belong to our heritage or does our heritage belong to us?” “As an ancient people we know that wisdom does not grow old, as long as we recognize that the future belongs to us and we belong to the future.” In these examples he succeeds in utilizing all three variations of parallelism.

That this pattern was no coincidence can be demonstrated by his long usage. He told the Associated Press: “You can make omelets out of eggs but not eggs out of omlets.” He told the European Parliament: “We experienced here the worst tragedy of our history. Here we dreamed an impossible rebirth.” He told John Kerry, speaking on peace: “I think the most important point right now is time. The Middle East today is like a watch without hands.” He told Israelis: “This land is rich in archeology and poor in resources. We have two lakes; one is dead the other is dying.”

The impact of parallelism can be found in Israel’s history, in a straight line from the Talmud to the faltering Arab-Israeli peace efforts. In Pirke Avot Rabbi Tarphon memorably quips, “It is not your task to finish the task; neither may you set it aside.” In 1939 Ben Gurion said, “We will fight the White Paper as though there were no war and the war as if there were no White Paper.” In a similar fashion, Yitzhak Rabin said, “We will fight terror as if there were no peace and make peace as if there were no terror.”

There have been times that I glanced at a news item and thought I was reading a Psalm. When it involved Peres, I was right.

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