In 2013, when Shimon Peres died at the age of 93, he was considered to be one of the world’s leading retired statesmen. This achievement was all the more astonishing, given the fact that Shimon Peres ran for prime minister five times (in 1977, 1981, 1984, 1988 and 1996), and never won a single election! Peres did serve twice as prime minister, but not because he won the elections. He served once as PM for six months – following the Rabin assassination, and before that – for two years in the 1980’s, after an electoral stalemate, in the aftermath of an election campaign he did not win.
Given the fact that Shimon Peres was, factually and empirically, a serial loser of successive electoral campaigns, one may ponder how he achieved this coveted worldly status of being considered by many as the world’s premier elder statesman? The answer lies in the fact that Peres learned with time to focus more on goals, and less on roles.
When Rabin was elected prime minister in 1992, Peres declared that he was willing to be merely the “luggage carrier,” of a leader who will veritably promote the peace process. Decades earlier, when Ben Gurion appointed Peres to be the director-general of the Ministry of Defense (a rather marginal position, compared to a member of Knesset or a government minister), Peres obtained nuclear power for Israel. In a word, Peres achieved greatness, because he learned to focus on policy rather than on empty titles, on essence rather than on vacuous honorifics.
Many of us in today’s culture and age are susceptible to what philosopher Alain de Botton calls “Status Anxiety.” Status anxiety is the tension and fear of not being seen as “successful” in the eyes of others, of not holding the “right” positions or titles.
People like Shimon Peres psychologically emancipate themselves from the shackles and menace of such a debilitating societal gaze, by focusing primarily on goals, and only secondarily on roles. People like Shimon Peres assess their inner-worth not by way of external credentials, but rather – by the positive impact that they exert on those around them, and the concrete change for good that they achieve and facilitate.
A primary and foundational scriptural manifestation of how to focus on goals rather than on roles, is the biblical figure of Moses. In Parshat Tzav, Moses sets the stage for Aaron to become the High Priest/Cohen Gadol. Moses dresses Aaron in the sacred vestments of the high priest, and he also anoints his brother with the special oil.
But when the time comes for Moses to bring forth an offering as part of the intricate process of ordaining Aaron as high priest, we see in the Torah an exceptional cantillation trope hovering above the word “Vayishchat,” which means “And he [Moses] slaughtered” (Leviticus 8:23).
This trope is known as “Shalshelet.” It is a unique trope that appears only four times in the entire Torah, each time denoting a profound existential crisis in the respective lives of Lot (Abraham’s nephew), Eliezer (Abraham’s servant) and Joseph (when he struggled to maintain his integrity when confronted with Potifar’s wife).
What is the inner struggle that Moses undergoes when he inaugurates his brother to become high priest? The answer is quite clear. Up until now, Moses was exclusively in the limelight as the sole and uncontested leader. Henceforth, Moses will have to share center stage with Aaron, who will lead the service in the sanctuary. Furthermore, Aaron’s descendants will inherit these priestly obligations and privileges for perpetuity, whereas Moses’s two sons will inherit no such hereditary status.
Moses, like Shimon Peres, overcomes the smallness of mind inherent in envying those who attain high status and glory. Moses makes peace with the fact that it will be his brother who will lead the special service in the holy of holies on Yom Kippur, and not him. Moses is able to transition from exclusive leadership to synergistic leadership, and will henceforth operate from a premise of a spirit of abundance, and collegial collaboration.
Moses adopts here the attitude of what psychologist Erik Erickson will call millennia thereafter “generativity” — the intrinsic striving to bestow upon society contributions that will outlast your own lifetime. From that point onwards, after overcoming his initial envying of his brother as high priest, Moses focuses exclusively on goals rather than on roles, and serves the people with unrivaled altruism and tenacity, until his dying day.
And so did Shimon Peres, who at the age of 93, gave a ninety-minute speech before a group of leading Israeli industrialists without any notes, standing on his two feet, on the very same morning in which he later on suffered a massive stroke, which ultimately took away his life shortly thereafter.
Don’t waste your life and career falling prey to the dubious race for empty titles and mere image. You are not your honorifics. You are the things that you do, the dignity and generosity of spirit with which you carry yourself, and the contributions that you make.
Don’t participate in the societal charade of external success. Try to obtain positions of influence and impact, but even if you fail to achieve them, focus primarily on goals and only secondarily on roles. And always remember the pristine existential veracity of the Latin maxim “Esse quam videri,” which means “To be, rather than to seem.”
Better to be impactful from a rather peripheral position, than to hold a prestigious and lucrative title, but merely bask in the facade of its external glory, and “play it safe.” Shabbat Shalom.