A year ago, when retired High Court president Aharon Barak finished an address at a legal conference at Neveh Ilan near Jerusalem, he asked if there were any questions. A member of the audience began his question with "Professor Barak, I would like to ask..." But Barak cut him off. "I am not a professor since I stopped teaching at university," he said. "You can call me Justice Barak or President Barak."
It has been 31 years since Barak left the office of dean of the Hebrew University Faculty of Law to become attorney general. He taught during that time, and there are those who say he is an even better teacher than he is a judge. But, as of yesterday, he is once again Professor Barak, the theoretician, scholar and philosopher.
The modesty of Aharon and Elisheva Barak is obvious to anyone who ever visited their Jerusalem home. The same modesty, bordering on austerity, was the hallmark of Barak's retirement ceremony yesterday. He canceled the party the Courts Administration had planned for him after the cost was made public. He did not allow even the plain refreshments served to the dignitaries that crowded the hall at the High Court building to be paid for by the state. Thus, Judge Elisheva Barak, vice-president of the National Labor Court, was seen yesterday morning before the ceremony, setting out the refreshments she had prepared herself ("together with a neighbor.")
The ceremony, in which Barak handed down his last ruling, was followed according to protocol by his speech, and one by the attorney general, the head of the Israel Bar Association and the incoming High Court president, was a long one. The swearing-in ceremony of the new president, Dorit Beinisch, in the Chagall Hall of the Knesset, also had its share of lengthy addresses. For television viewers, who had a rare opportunity to hear a concentrated series of messages by senior officials of the justice system, it must certainly have seemed strange.
These ceremonies did not obey the rules of ratings, which require a much faster pace. However for both the incoming and outgoing High Court heads, this was a golden opportunity to make their judicial credo known without the intervention of commentators.
Of all the speakers, Mazuz seemed most able to seize the moment. "A person knows only rarely in real time that the moment he is experiencing is a historic moment," Mazuz said, capturing the sense of all those present.
History yesterday turned a page, and some of the speakers' voices broke when they spoke.
"I had the privilege of being Aharon's student," Beinisch said, choking back tears. And when she came to the words, "Aharon was a child who survived the selection in Democracy Square in the Kovna ghetto," the tears did come.
The leaders of the judicial world almost never show their human face in public. Yesterday, we were able to see them as people: Mazuz tripping over his tongue and saying "bless you, the next princess, ah, president," along with tears, hugs, and Barak, "a giant of the generation," as acting president Dalia Itzik called him, taking pictures with his grandchildren climbing all over him.