He was the quintessential Jew, the one prime minister who stemmed from the old school, possessing a cozy acknowledgement of God, a deep reverence for the Jewish heritage, and an intimate familiarity with the ancient customs. He was Menachem Begin, and only he could have authored the address which he delivered to the delegates of the United Nations disarmament conference in the Pessah season of 1982.
It was a homily based on Isaiah's words, Vehaya b'acharit hayamim.
The array of premiers, foreign ministers, ambassadors, and other envoys, many in robes of far-off lands, seated in the vast blue, green, and gold United Nations General Assembly Hall, ceased their chatting, and there was only the sound of occasional coughing and the dry rustle of paper when Begin, his text close to his nose, read with an actor's precision:
"Two ancient universal prophets in Israel, Yeshayahu ben Amotz and Micha Hamorashti, brought forth similar, although not identical, visions of complete disarmament and eternal peace. The vision of Isaiah is older. I shall, therefore, quote from chapter two of the book of his prophecies:
"'And it shall come to pass in the last days that the mountain of the Lord's House shall be established on the top of the mountains and shall be exalted over the hillsâ€¦ And many people shall go and say, Come ye, and let us go to the mountain of the Lordâ€¦ For out of Zion shall go forth the Law, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalemâ€¦ And they shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning-hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore."
Staring fixedly at the United Nations Secretary-General, Javier Perez de Cuellar of Peru, Begin mused, "Mr. Secretary-General, is Isaiah here not predicting a remarkable vision of world disarmament and universal peace, millennia before disarmament conferences were ever thought of?"
Javier Perez de Cuellar drew his lips in thoughtfully, and nodded.
"Moreover, this universal peace - when shall it come into being?"
The prime minister scanned the representatives of the nations, adjusted his spectacles, and again peered closely at his prepared text as though studying a museum manuscript:
"Honorable delegates: Please note that in the original Hebrew text it is written, 'Vehaya b'acharit hayamim,' which in the traditional English translations is rendered, 'in the last days,' or 'in the end of days.' Would this phrase then not imply that we shall have to wait until the last days - or the end of days - in order to merit universal peace and the tranquility of disarmament? Yet, it is widely preached that with the coming of the last days, or the end of days, ice shall cover the earth and volcanic lava the continents. Well then" - there was a sudden wryness in his tone and impishness his eyes, "where is the blessed peace? Where is the solace? Where is the succor? What consolation does Isaiah's vision bring to suffering mankind if in the last days ice and lava shall cover the earth? Where is the cure for humanity's afflictions?"
A buzz began to drone around the great hall which faded when the speaker declared with a sudden vibrancy, "Ladies and gentlemen: Hebrew synonyms are rich and its homonyms are resonant. But they often suffer in translation. However, to those familiar with the original language of the Bible, they are poetry."
And now, with the devotion of a disciple and the fire of a champion, smiling faintly with the self-satisfaction of knowledge, Begin plowed on, "In Hebrew, we would translate, 'in the last days,' or 'in the end of days' as, 'b'acharon hayamim,' However, Isaiah does not use those words but an entirely different phrase: 'b'acharit hayamim.' And though 'b'acharon' and 'b'acharit' are phonetically similar their meanings are very different. 'Acharit hayamim' does not mean 'the last days' or 'the end of days.' On the contrary! The key word, 'acharit,' is a synonym for a bright future. It means 'hatikva,' - hope, as we find in Jeremiah chapter 29, verse 11: 'latet lachem acharit v'tikva' - 'to give to you a future and a hope,' or, 'to give you a hopeful future.' 'Acharit' can also mean progeny, as we find in Ezekiel Chapter 23, Verse 25 - and in progeny there is future. Hence, 'b'acharit hayamim' really means the days of redemption, when mankind shall enjoy the full blessings of eternal peace for all generations to come. Such is the true vision of the prophet Isaiah."
And now, rising to his full height, and in a tone that evoked high purpose, pride, dignity, conviction, and Jewish sense of mission, Menachem Begin intoned, "Nearly three millennia have passed since Isaiah's immortal words were spoken - 'Vehaya b'acharit hayamim.' Thousands of wars have devastated lands and destroyed countless millions of people. Whole nations have been on the brink of extermination, as manifested in the Shoah. Plowshares have been beaten into swords, pruning-hooks into spears. What then of the prophet's vision? Shall we, mankind, despair?"
I looked around me. There was the inscrutable face of the Chinese ambassador, the pinched bureaucrat's face of the Indian, the bourgeois face of the Frenchman, the thin, carefully clipped mustached face of the Japanese; there was the dubious look of the Russian delegate, the impervious expression of the Englishman, the veiled eyes of the Egyptian, the cold eyes of the Austrian, the puzzled gaze of the Italian, and the heartening stare of the American.
"Certainly not," thundered Prime Minister Begin in answer to his own question, his voice sonorous and trembling, "To us, the Jews, so often the victims of man's inhumanity to man, Isaiah's words resonate as if they were spoken but yesterday. His vision is like a lode star. It is high, far, and bright. It shows us the way. And, indeed, one day, in the bright future, 'b'acharit hayamim,' universal peace shall surely come to pass. So, yes, let us strive on. Let us have faith."
With that, the prime minister pitched into the body of his remarks, expanding on concrete proposals for a global nuclear non-aggression pact, the establishment of nuclear-free zones, and the extension of strategic arms limitation treaties. This, he wound up with the words:
"Fellow delegates: There is one question we have to ask ourselves: Whatever our animosities, our recriminations, and our states of war, can we nations still talk to one another? Israel's answer is, "Yes. We must. We can. We, Israel, have the experience."
Thumping the dais with a great whack, he plunged into the story of how he and President Sadat of Egypt, enemies for decades, had finally made peace. And when he described how he and Sadat had brought Egyptian and Israeli war invalids together at El-Arish, to shake hands and make up, the sheer ardor of his language nudged the hall to intense attention. As he spoke he paused in emotion, and over his face came a look of reverie as he relived that extraordinary encounter of chivalrous reconciliation:
It was shortly after Pessah, 1979. Two buses, one Egyptian, the other Israeli, had traveled their separate ways along the coastal Sinai road to El Arish. The passengers were wounded combatants of the 1948 War of Independence, the 1956 Sinai war, the 1967 Six Day War, the 1969-70 war of attrition, and the 1973 Yom Kippur War - some lame, some paralyzed, some blind, their only baggage crutches, wheelchairs, and walking canes.
The Egyptian bus was the first to arrive. The Arabs limped their way into the shady interior of the flag-bedecked mess hall, congregating at its far end. Soon, the second bus drew up and the Jews shuffled in after them, congregating by the entrance.
Nobody stirred, for nobody knew quite what to do, what to say. Begin and Sadat were supposed to have been there to greet them, but they were late. So the war invalids stood staring warily at one another from opposite sides of the hall, locked in a suspense of conflicting emotions.
As the awkward silence thickened a whisper was heard: "Kach oti eilehem - Take me to them." It was a blind man, an Israeli, down on one knee, talking to his son. The child appeared frightened. He clung to his father, eyeing the Egyptians fearfully. So the blind father reassured the child, and nudged him forward. And as the lad haltingly led his father towards the Egyptian line, an Egyptian officer, legless, in a wheelchair, slowly rolled himself toward them. They met at the center of the hall, and with no words spoken, they shook hands.
A cheer exploded from all sides, and with laughter and tears the disfigured Israelis and Egyptians limped and hobbled toward each other, melting into huddles of hugs and embrace. When Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat mounted the platform the Jews and Arabs called out to them in Hebrew and in Arabic, and in English: "No more war. No more bloodshed. Peace. Salaam. Shalom."
"So, yes, we can do it," cried Menachem Begin, surfacing from his momentary reverie. "And yes, there shall surely come a time in the bright future - vehaya b'acharit hayamim - when our children and our children's children will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning-hooks. Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore." n
The writer is a veteran diplomat who served on the personal staffs of five prime ministers, including Menachem Begin.