The entire world this week mourns the passing of Shimon Peres, alav hashalom, who died Wednesday at 93 years of age. Many obituaries have been written in the past few days about him, which I encourage all of us to read.
Peres was involved in the creation, building and flourishing of the State of Israel more than any other person. As a young man, Peres was active in the Haganah and became a close advisor and protege to David Ben Gurion. He was responsible for breaking the siege and acquiring military equipment in the War of Independence. Peres built up the military during the early years of the state. He led behind the scenes diplomacy with France leading up to the 1956 Suez war. Then, he was in charge of creating Israel’s nuclear program in the 1960’s.
In the years after the Six Day War, Peres encouraged Jewish settlement in the West Bank, although he eventually came to see it as an obstacle to peace. He, along with Yitzchak Rabin, was an architect of the Oslo Accords, for which he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace.
Peres was an early and constant promoter of technology. He saw economic growth and cooperation as the path towards closer relations and eventual peace with other nations, including Israel’s enemies.
Shimon Peres served in the Knesset for nearly five decades, and held every major position in government, including Prime Minister and President.
You have to decide either to be a giver or a taker. The biggest mistake is if you’ll use the power to take. The greatest wisdom is if you give.
That, he explains, has been the secret to America’s great success. And it is has driven his approach to building stronger connections between Israel and other nations. Peres shared a story in which he was recently meeting with Vladimir Putin, whom he described as a very good friend. Peres rebuked him for being a taker rather than a giver.
“You behave like a czar,” [he] said…
“What did the czars do? They developed two cities, St. Petersburg and Moscow, as a showcase. Whatever you want, you will find there. The rest of Russia is like Nigeria covered with snow. Your people are dying. You don’t give them life. You think they’ll forgive you?”
“Why is America great?” I asked him. “Because they were givers. Why is Europe in trouble? Because they are takers. America is giving; people think it’s because they are generous. I think it’s because they are wise. If you give, you create friends. The most beneficial investment is making friends.”
“America had the guts to take the Marshall Plan, a huge piece of their GNP that they gave to this dying Europe. And in this way, they have shown that this is the best investment in the world.”
A cultural Zionist, Shimon Peres nevertheless believed strongly that Zionism had to be rooted in timeless Jewish values, and felt that the current generation had gone off track from that ideal.
But Peres was always an optimist. Respected by everyone across the political spectrum, he has been Israel’s chief visionary for peace for the last two decades. It was a hope that he never gave up.
Peres recently reached out to meet with Micah Goodman, a philosopher and teacher at the Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. Goodman is the most prominent writer on Jewish philosophy in Israel today. A few years ago, he wrote a best-seller entitled The Secrets of the Guide for the Perplexed about Moses Maimonides. (Only in Israel would a book like that be a best seller.) It was recently translated into English as Maimonides and the Book that Changed Judaism.
Peres wanted to meet with Goodman, whom he described as his teacher, to discuss Maimonides.
“I find myself in his apartment in Tel Aviv,” Mr. Goodman recalled. “He is wearing his jeans. He wants to understand Maimonides.
“He told me that before he goes to sleep he thinks to himself, ‘Did I bring more good to the world today, or bad?’ He kept a balance sheet. He was like a 16-year-old idealist. At 93.”
That question, “Did I bring more good to the world today, or bad?” summarizes the entire theme of the High Holidays. For a 93 year old man to retain that sense of mission and responsibility is incredible. Shimon Peres’ entire life is evidence that this question has always driven him, from earlier times when he was building up Israel’s capacity to survive and thrive, to more recent times when it had achieved power and found itself in a position from which it could strive for peace.
I suspect that the teaching by Maimonides to which Peres is referring is from the Mishneh Torah, in his section on Teshuvah. (Hilchot Teshuvah 2:1,3-4) Maimonides writes:
Each and every person has merits and sins. A person whose merits exceed his sins is [termed] righteous. A person whose sins exceed his merits is [termed] wicked. If [his sins and merits] are equal, he is termed a Beinoni.
The same applies to an entire country. If the merits of all its inhabitants exceed their sins, it is [termed] righteous. If their sins are greater, it is [termed] wicked. The same applies to the entire world.
Just as a person’s merits and sins are weighed at the time of his death, so, too, the sins of every inhabitant of the world together with his merits are weighed on the festival of Rosh HaShanah. If one is found righteous, his [verdict] is sealed for life. If one is found wicked, his [verdict] is sealed for death. A Beinoni’s verdict remains tentative until Yom Kippur. If he repents, his [verdict] is sealed for life. If not, his [verdict] is sealed for death…
And this is the teaching which I believe Peres found so inspirational:
…Accordingly, throughout the entire year, a person should always look at himself as equally balanced between merit and sin and the world as equally balanced between merit and sin. If he performs one sin, he tips his balance and that of the entire world to the side of guilt and brings destruction upon himself.
And so Peres, to his dying day, asked himself, “Did I bring more good to the world today, or bad?”
Is this a question that each of us can ask ourselves? Maybe it is only a question for great individuals. The rest of us can be free to go about our lives day by day, just trying to get by.
This morning’s Torah portion, Parashat Nitzavim, would suggest otherwise. It opens with Moses leading the Israelites through a covenant ceremony. He begins:
Atem nitzavim hayom kulkhem lifnei Adonai Eloheikhem. You stand this day, all of you, before the Lord you God
It is important to note that Moses begins with the general – “all of you.”
He then specifies the leaders: “your tribal heads, your elders and your officials.”
But then, to underscore the point that this message is not reserved for the elites in society, Moses continues: “all the men of Israel, your children, your wives.”
Finally, even those at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder are included: “even the stranger within your camp, from woodchopper to water drawer.” (29:9-11)
Moses goes on to specify that it is not just the generation about to enter the Promised Land that stands there. Rather, all of their descendants, up to and including us, are present to affirm the Jewish people’s covenant with God.
Parashat Nitzavim is always read on the Shabbat before Rosh Hashanah. It is no accident. We are meant to hear this opening line. The word that stands out is hayom. Today. Moses’ instruction is delivered in the second person, in the present tense. He is addressing us, in this moment.
He then tells a story of sin, punishment, exile, and then return, invoking the word teshuvah seven times. The parashah ends with Moses’ exhortation to us: “I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life…” (30:19)
The question that guided Shimon Peres’ life, “Did I bring more good to the world today, or bad?” can be traced back to Maimonides, and even further back to Moses in the Torah itself. It is a question not just for the great among us. But truly, it is a question that each of us must ask ourselves.
And not only as we approach the new year. It is a question for hayom. Today.
I wonder if we might take this lesson from the great Shimon Peres and make this a regular question that each one of us reflects on at the end of every day. “Did I bring more good to the world today, or bad?” Did I tip the scales of my own life towards merit, and thus save the world? When presented with the choice, did I choose life?