When Ariel Sharon first went into a coma in 2006, I remember thinking how eerie it was that it was just months after Israel’s disengagement from Gaza. Could Sharon see what was happening now somehow in his coma? Would he wake up and recognize it as a mistake? I kept waiting for him to wake up one day, transform back into a war hero, and say: I don’t know, let’s rebuild all those homes.

Every now and then there would be a news item that there had been some brain activity in response to his sons’ voices, and I would wonder about his coma. Where exactly was Sharon? Was he here, seeing everything going on around him but locked within himself? Or was he maybe halfway to the next world, seeing this world from a distance? Either way, eight years is a long time to be in a coma. So I was surprised when I felt a wave of sadness wash over me when I heard of his death yesterday - because for many of us, he had really been gone since 2006.

Sharon was a powerful, committed leader for the Jewish people for so many years (though he left many of us disappointed in his last years). From his early years working in the Haganah to protect Kibbutzim, to his leading an elite commando group for the first time in 1953, Sharon risked his life to protect our people.

In 1967, he was the major general of the army during the Six Day War, and commanded troops on the Egyptian front. When Israel won the Six Day War, Sharon went straight to the Kotel and called out the Shema, thanking God for the miraculous victory.

In 1973, Sharon served as a reservist-general, commanding troops that helped rout Egyptian forces in the Yom Kippur War. A photo of Sharon in the desert, dressed in his army uniform with his head bandaged, became the most famous picture of the war.

Eventually Sharon was elected prime minister in 2001. Soon after, he ordered strikes against Palestinian security installations to fight against the rising terrorism. Sharon did not back down during the terrifying intifada, defending Israel’s right to protect its citizens.

These quotes reveal the depth of Sharon’s love for Israel and the Jewish people during his years of leadership:

“I am the last person who would divide Jerusalem. I have said this many times. I don’t plan to discuss any division of Jerusalem.”

“Israel may have the right to put others on trial, but certainly, no one has the right to put the Jewish people and the State of Israel on trial.”

“For me, peace should provide security for the Jewish people.”

“As long as I’m needed. I’ll be ready to serve. I look forward with optimism. We need the Jews here. Move to Israel! Move to Israel!”

“I was born on a farm. My strength has nothing to do with political apparatus. I get my strength from nature, from flowers.”

“There is no bulletproof vest in my size.”

I didn’t know how deep Sharon’s love was for Israel and the Jewish people. And I didn’t know about his personal suffering: his only sibling, a sister who moved to New York and hardly ever spoke to Sharon again. How Sharon married his childhood sweetheart, Margalit, and lost her in a tragic car accident when their son was just five years old. And how six years after his first wife’s death, their son Gur was accidentally shot by a friend who was playing with a rifle in their yard. (His son died in his arms on the way to the hospital.) And I didn’t know that he lost his second wife to cancer in 2000. So much pain. So much I just didn’t know when I thought about Ariel Sharon.

But what I do know is that Sharon was a hero and a fighter for our nation. He was a proud Jew who shouted the Shema at the Kotel after the Six Day War. He lost close friends in battle and suffered many personal losses throughout his life. And he never gave up. He may have made mistakes. But he never gave up on the Jewish people. He wanted to serve for as long as he was needed. And he did. And so we thank you, Ariel Sharon, for your dedication and your courage. We thank you for your willingness to fight back against terrorism and for your strong stance on Jerusalem.

And I will remember your words: “Myself, first of all I am a Jew. And that is the most important thing for me.”