This past Shabbat was an uplifting day of song, good food and friendship, but it was also a sad day: former politician and activist Yossi Sarid died. The sadness at his loss permeated all conversations, prayers and interactions. It is rare to witness such deep expressions of grief over the death of a political leader (outside of Yitzhak Rabin.) Sarid was courageous, wise and caring. A symbol to many of all the good qualities of “the beautiful Israel,” Sarid served Israel as a Knesset member and was one its most successful ministers of education and peace activists. He was also a journalist, a poet and a teacher. He wrote a weekly column for Haaretz. The column he wrote last week, a few days before his unexpected death, appeared in the paper’s weekend edition as his unintended last public message to his readers and to the nation.
A few years ago, Sarid related the following story in an interview: as a young child, he was an excellent student. But whenever there was a parent-teacher conference, he braced himself for the worst. Sure enough, his mother would come home and open with, “Your teachers say you are an excellent student.” But then she would give him a smack on his face, and say, “I don’t care about you being a good student. When will you be a mensch?”
Sarid went on to explain that to him, being a mensch meant to look the other in the eye, and to act for justice and peace, not just talk about them.
He did so many times in his life—most memorably, when he and his family moved to the town Kiryat Shmona, adjacent to Israel’s border with Lebanon, during the worst period of shelling of that very poor and neglected town. As a resident of Kiryat Shmona and nearby Margaliot, he volunteered his services and taught civics. These were highly unusual acts of civic duty and social responsibility, particularly since Kiryat Shmona is a place perceived as home only to those who have no choice; those who can, leave. But Sarid knew that to be a mensch, he needed to act, not just duck into town for a a visit of sympathy and photo opportunity.
Sarid was a lover of Israel and of peace. He never tired of pursuing peace, and inspired those who came in contact with him to do the same. His love for Israel also meant fighting corruption in the government and in Israeli society. When he stepped down from his Knesset work, he continued this fight through his writing, often causing controversy as he exposed behaviors and attitudes that he saw as immoral.
Sarid was a lover of Jewish and Hebrew culture. He was a secular person who did not see it a contradiction in reading a chapter of Tanakh (Bible) every day. His Hebrew was considered that of a master, and many learned from and emulated his poetry.
Sarid hadn’t been healthy for a few years. He wrote this poem as one of his ways of expressing his struggle with old age and death:
I went to a famous man’s funeral.
I didn’t recognize the young people because of their youth
and I didn’t recognize the old people because they had aged.
If there were a police lineup for me today,
I’d have a hard time identifying myself.
They’d need to have photos of me
that were posted up
at all the stations of my life
in the days when I was wanted.
Translated from Hebrew by Vivian Eden, from Shirim Aharei (“Poems After”), Even Shoshan 2010.
As I write this, social media sites are filled with the pain and sadness of those who, contrary to the last line of Sarid’s poem, valued him very much—who saw him as a guiding light throughout all the stages of his life. His integrity was exquisitely strong, and those around him knew who he was and what he represented, even if they didn’t agree with him.
Hanukkah began at sundown of the day that that Yossi Sarid was buried. As we all seek the light hidden in the darkness of the winter and in the world’s sadness, let’s remember him as an example to all of us. Like him, let us see the light in small acts as well as in big ones; the light in the eyes of those before us, whether they agree with us or not; in continuing to fight for what we believe, even if the times are discouraging.
His memory is and will continue to be a blessing and a source of light.