BBC Radio 4:Rabbi Dr Naftal Brawer 06/09/2017

The drama surrounding North Korea’s nuclear provocations is intensifying daily.

While Washington and Pyongyang stare at each other across the abyss, western senior diplomats and analysts are scrambling to decipher the North Korean leader’s end game, so as to contain, rather than exacerbate the threat.

While trying to understand Kim Jon Un’s mind-set is important, it is not the only factor in determining the outcome of this high stakes standoff. In fact, its focus belies a fallacy known as ‘the great man theory.’ This theory, popularised in the nineteenth century by the Scottish writer Thomas Carlyle, asserts that "The history of the world is but the biography of great men." Meaning, that major events in history are determined and shaped by the Caesars, Napoleons, and Bismarcks of this world. The little guy simply gets swept along in their wake.

Tolstoy, heaps scorn on this theory. In an essay at the start of his third volume of War and Peace, he argues that history is shaped not by the great man, but by everyman.

“Kings, he writes, “are the slaves of history.”

In his epic battle scenes Tolstoy demonstrates how the best thought-out plans by the brightest generals can owe their success or failure to the single foot soldier who either decides to press on or to retreat. He argues that:

“Everything depends on countless circumstances, the significance which is determined at a certain moment, and no one knows when that moment will come.”

From Tolstoy’s point of view, the real threat to nuclear Armageddon lies not with Kim Jon Un, nor with Donald Trump, but rather with the numerous, nameless individuals surrounding them, who are at risk of misreading a signal, misinterpreting a gesture, flinching, rather than holding their nerve. Any of these small acts by these individuals may set off a chain reaction that can turn the course of world history.

Reflecting on the impact of the choices we make, is very much in keeping with the current Hebrew month Elul. This last month of the Jewish calendar year is traditionally a time for introspection and repentance as we lead up to our Jewish New Year.

In describing the process of repentance Moses Maimonides urges his readers to imagine that the world is balanced on a knife’s edge and that an individual act, good or bad, can tip the balance of the world, and spell the difference between redemption and destruction.

Our world is precarious, and much of what unfolds, is seemingly beyond our control. And yet, our actions are not insignificant, our individual choices set off complex chain reactions that reverberate far beyond their point of origin. We can never know the wider effects of the individual choices we make, but Maimonides wants us to consider their importance in shaping our fragile world.