The traditional open house held each Succot at Beit Hanassi became a springboard on Monday for the centenary celebrations of Kibbutz Deganya Aleph, the mother kibbutz which in 1910 paved the way for the establishment of the kibbutz movement.
Wearing white T-shirts emblazoned with the centenary logo, a five-generation delegation from Deganya Aleph joined people from all over the country who came to Beit Hanassi to wish the president well.
The crowds started lining up along both sides of the entrance to Beit Hanassi well before 8:45 a.m., when the gates were officially opened.
President Shimon Peres said he had been privileged to know some of the founders of Deganya Aleph - idealists who had come to a wilderness and turned it into an oasis. He was delighted to be able to welcome members of the youngest generation of the kibbutz along with parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, and even great-great-grandparents. He described the members of Kibbutz Deganya Aleph as emblematic of the legacy of Moses as implemented by Joshua.
Waxing enthusiastic about the accomplishments not only of the kibbutz but of the nation as a whole, Peres acknowledged that there were a few cracks in the surface, "but being the eternal optimist that I am," he said, "I'll attribute the cracks to the strength of the sun."
While there were still some schisms in Israeli society, Peres continued, "The differences among us are being increasingly obviated as we find more common threads."
Recalling that his mentor David Ben-Gurion had exhorted Israel to be a light unto the nations, Peres said: "Let's turn the country not only into a light unto the nations but also into a light unto ourselves."
This year, the format of the open house differed greatly from that of past years, and though it offered greater variety, entertainment and comfort for visitors, it also generated a great deal of disappointment.
For decades, visitors of every ilk have traipsed through the presidential succa to shake the hand of the incumbent, pose for photos with him, take a few photos of their own and then move on.
This year, the president stayed in the succa for only half an hour to shake hands with early comers, the first of whom was Science and Technology Minister Daniel Herschkowitz, followed by the elderly and families with small children.
Peres obligingly posed again and again for group photos until rescued by his staff at 9:30 and whisked away. Several ministries, including Welfare and Social Services, Science and Technology, Transportation, Agriculture, Health and the Interior mounted exhibitions to highlight various aspects of their activities.
The Welfare and Social Services exhibit in the main hall of Beit Hanassi featured arts and crafts by the mentally and physically impaired from centers in Kiryat Ono, Jerusalem, Ness Ziona, Yarka and Kiryat Yam. One of the artists sat and painted new works while the crowd watched him admiringly.
The numerous entertainment groups from around the country, which by and large performed the traditional dances of various ethnic groups, included an ensemble of deaf dancers and an ethnically and religiously diverse group of people with mental and physical disabilities. The crowd gave them a huge cheer.
The entertainment and the exhibitions were meant to serve as some form of compensation to the public for their inability to meet or at least see Peres when they entered the succa.
And indeed there was great interest in both, but this did not lessen the disappointment on the part of those members of the public who have been coming to Beit Hanassi year after year to exchange a word or two with the president, and who after waiting in long lines discovered that this year he wasn't there. Some of the people who had been waiting were of greatly advanced age and barely able to walk.
However, Peres left his office twice to mingle with the crowd and was hailed with the adulation, applause, whistles and cheers that usually greet a rock star.
As he made his way past the barricades people leaned forward to thrust babies into his arms, shake his hand or even just touch him. Normally the short journey from where he sat in the front row of the crowd back to the main building in the presidential complex takes less than a minute - Peres was waylaid so many times it took him a quarter of an hour. Despite the fact that he's 86 years old, Peres had the stamina to stand for several hours without rest as had his predecessors in office.
But his recent fainting spell, coupled with fears about swine flu, cast an aura of caution over his staff, and the event was planned in such a way as to enable the public to at least see him and hear him, even if not everyone was able to get up close to him.