Reveal the Light!

Miriam Peretz

Five years ago on Yom HaAtzmaut, as Israel celebrated its 70th year, Miriam Peretz was awarded the Israel Prize for Lifetime Achievement and Special Contribution to Society for her work with Israeli youth. Her story of faith, resilience and hope in the face of losing two sons in the IDF, as well as her husband, has captured the hearts of Israelis of all backgrounds. At the award ceremony, she delivered the following speech, broadcast throughout Israel on national television. Within a few weeks, it was announced that her speech would be incorporated into the educational curriculum of Israeli schools. We are honored to share the full speech translated into English. 

I feel both unworthy and deeply moved to stand here today and speak on behalf of the award recipients. I pray that I will not stumble in my words and that my simple language can properly express our deep gratitude to the State of Israel, who found us worthy of receiving this award, and to our families and close friends, who have supported us and encouraged us all along the way.

Much of the audience sitting here today are missing loved ones who did not have the opportunity to see us reach this moment. Two of them are my parents, Ya’akov and Ito Ohayon, who were born at the foot of the Atlas Mountains in Morocco. They could not read or write, and did not speak Hebrew. If they were sitting here today they would understand only a few of my words, words which for them were a code: Jerusalem, shalom, Torah, and todah (thanks). Every night, my father told me about a city he didn’t know, that he never saw in pictures, and whose description was passed from father to son – Jerusalem, where there are trees dripping with milk and honey, and at their feet lie lions and lambs. Every time my father spoke the word “Jerusalem,” he put his two fingers to his lips and solemnly mumbled her name in holiness, as he kissed each one of its letters.

One night in the summer of 1963 my father announced that the Mashiach would come tonight. When I asked him how I would recognize him, he answered, “He will wear an open shirt, shorts and sandals.” I met the Mashiach – the shaliach of the Jewish Agency – who took us out of the Mellah (Jewish Quarter) of Casablanca, where I lived as a girl until I was 10, and brought us to “Jerusalem” – to an apartment complex in Be’er Sheva, where I lived until 1969. We lived without gas, without a refrigerator, with beds made of iron, and the struggle of klitah (absorption) and a new language. But there was also great joy, that we had merited to come to Eretz Yisrael.

I learned to love the country through its songs, thanks to a radio that my father received from his job as a road sweeper. Every Wednesday, I waited with intense anticipation at the door of our shack, notebook and pencil in hand, ready to write the lyrics of the songs taught by Effi Netzer on his program. That’s how I came to know the Land; the Chermon, through “Malchut HaChermon,” Beit Lechem via “Re’i Rachel Re’i” and Emek Yizrael through “Shir HaEmek.”

But one song is burned into my memory, “Shir HaBoker” (“Morning Song”) by Natan Alterman, which opens with the words, “In the mountains the sun is already hot…” One line from the song’s chorus echoed in my head and wouldn’t leave me: “What else have we not given? And we will give it…” Even then, as a child, I felt that I had done nothing for my country. I came to a land that was already prepared and complete. I didn’t know that a day would come when I would give what was most precious to me for my Land – my sons, Uriel and Eliraz.

But a homeland is not built with only pain and tears, but also with labor and continuous giving over the course of years. I am proud to belong to a group that chose to engage in education, believing that this is the way to break through the walls of ignorance and poverty, understanding that education opens opportunities for self-realization and for personal development, as it opened for me.

To my work in education I brought the values ​​I absorbed in my parents’ house. These are the foundations on which I raised my six children with my beloved Eliezer z”l: Uriel, Eliraz, Hadas, Avichai, Eliasaf and Bat El.

Honored guests: I stand here today in front of you, embarrassed. Next to my colleagues – extraordinary people who created, wrote, researched and invented, people of vision and action, people of faith – I am small. I have not created anything, I cannot point to a discovery I made or a formula I solved. All I have is one heart that was broken three times by terrible news. The fall of my son Uriel in battle in Lebanon, the death of my husband Eliezer from heartbreak, and the death of my second son Eliraz in battle in Gaza.

With this heart I went out to my people, and in simple words, in the language of a broken heart, I spoke about the land and its legacy, about choosing good, about joy, about attaching oneself to life, about duty, and taking responsibility for our society.

From this heart, which beats with faith in this country and in this people, and from the abyss of pain, flowed springs of love. When the heart is full of faith, it can withstand difficult challenges, and it can create great works. This is my creation; it is rooted in hearts. I turned my suffering into a new niggun, a new tune. And so, too, did every one of those sitting on this honorable stage – each one with their unique heartbeats, each one with their upbringing and training, each with their own Jerusalem, each one with the springs of their own creation.

Among the recipients of the award are many who have experienced loss, and yet their spirits were not broken. They continue to make a difference in society, each according to their own way, to make it better. And the others – they do not act only for themselves but for the sake of the State of Israel, to develop it and empower it in a wide variety of fields through all the diverse shades of human experience.

I have had the privilege of meeting Israeli society in all its many colors, through face-to-face meetings and heart-expanding meetings that allowed me to experience new thoughts and achieve new understanding. If only all of us could go out to experience this diversity, to get to know and feel the “others,” to see the pained and happy eyes, to hear the different voices and sounds. And even if there are chasms between us – we can build bridges over them, if only we recognize that there is more that binds us than what separates us. 

We all want life. We all desire peace. This land is home for all of us; the love of our people and our homeland is not the exclusive possession of only one side. We all want to see our grandchildren build their homes here, travel the country safely and enjoy its beauty. We all long for a model society in the spirit of the vision of the prophets of Israel. 

Because of this, we all bear responsibility for the character, values ​​and future of our home. We cannot ignore its challenges nor stand on the side. In this puzzle we have created in the State of Israel, there is room for all of us, for the entire rainbow of colors. And if even one piece of the puzzle is missing, the picture will not be complete. And so I am not ready to give up on any part of our people, even if the work of bringing all the pieces together takes time – I will not despair.

To succeed in creating this mosaic, we must respect everyone in the way we speak. We must create a discourse that is restrained and patient, that allows for the expression of opinions without fear or threats, and makes room for forgiveness. We need a discourse that strengthens our commitment to the love of humanity, “for in the image of G-d He created man.” A discourse that respects our heritage, that increases goodness, light and hope, and does not focus only on darkness. 

In the words of the ‘sweet singer’ of Israel (David HaMelech): “Who is the man who desires life?… Guard your tongue from evil, and your lips from speaking guile. Turn away from evil, and do good; seek peace, and pursue it.”

This is the Torah of life! Let us choose the path that increases light, as I chose to carry on the values ​​of my sons Uriel and Eliraz and their friends. Their values ​​of friendship and brotherhood are my guiding light, and their call of “brother” to all of their friends is my call. We are brothers, for better and for worse.

As my son Uriel wrote: “With all the thorns and barbs that have scratched my body, you could put together a three-foot hedge. But these aren’t just ordinary thorns – they’re thorns from the Land of Israel. And the thorns of my country are better to me than all the flowers of the world.”

Honored guests: We have been privileged to see the rise of the state and its prosperity. Now, in its 70th year, our mission is to reveal the hidden lights in the vast “togetherness” of all the tribes of Israel. As Bialik wrote in his poem “To the Volunteers of the Nation” (לַמִּתְנַדְּבִים בָּעָם): 

Unearth the light! Reveal the light!

Even if we’ve been buried under mountains of darkness,

The sparks have not been extinguished.

From mountains of darkness we will carve out light,

Revealing layers of illumination.

Oh, sons of the Maccabees!

Help your people stand upright, build up the generation!

Unearth the light! Reveal the light!

 

Chag Sameach to us all!

 

Translated by Rabbi Elie Mischel.

© 2024 World Mizrachi

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