In the village where I grew up, down the street from the home-made ice cream place and the library, across the street from the playground where I went as a kid and I used to take my son, there is a magical place. It’s a red-painted barn
kind of out of place for New England, with the words 1856 Country Store on the
side, but everyone knows it as the Penny Candy Store. It’s the place in the
village to get sweatshirts, soap, doodads, knickknacks, a newspaper, and yes,
penny candy. It’s the perfect spot to meet your friends or take your kid after story
time or some time on the playground, and the best spot to stand in front of to
watch the Memorial Day parade every year. On either side of the door are two
white, painted benches; one says “Democrats” on it,
the other “Republicans”.
It’s supposed to be for a laugh, these two benches divided by the entranceway,
a cute photo you take. This past summer as I was walking with my family past I
looked at those benches, and suddenly it wasn’t so cute any more.
There’s been a lot of discussion since last high holidays on how divided we are, and how ugly and angry those divisions have become. We read about neighbors who can’t stand to look at each other anymore getting into screaming matches and even spitting on each other; racist and anti-Semitic and homophobic attacks in the wake of the election. And it isn’t just Right vs. Left; it seems to me that we’re increasingly in the middle of an all-out scrum of all versus all; left-wing organizations shunning Jews because of Zionism, right-wing groups and individuals threatening those who don’t observe intellectual purity. And all those discussions have been filled with a great deal of blame and accusation; whose fault is it that we’re so divided. Which, of course, fosters more division, more hostility, more anger. I don’t know about you; maybe you’re over it. Maybe you feel like this issue has been talked to death and you just want to be left alone. For me, as a father, as a rabbi, as a man, it’s scary. It’s exhausting. And it’s sad. It’s increasingly clear that we cannot move forward as a country and a community in this fashion. As human beings, we ache for connectivity; we are social animals and we want to be able to be in relationship with one another in peace. Forget about politics for a moment; in my neighborhood, there are two neighbors that are having a constant war with one another about the Lord knows what, but it’s constant and they are always trying to suck everyone else into this fight. Perhaps you have had similar experiences. It’s really uncomfortable, to the point of worrying about folks’ safety. I’m not saying we all have to be best buddies, but a minimum level of civility goes a long way to keeping the peace. We hunger for that civility, need to reclaim it and restore it to a prominent place in our society.
Therefore, as Jews, as human beings, we are compelled to act. Our tradition teaches us the importance of peace: in text after text we are reminded that the pursuit of peace is among the most important tasks before us. Famously we are taught Bakesh shalom v’rodfei hu; Seek peace and pursue it. And the sages of old have understood that text to mean that, while other mitzvot are conditional, circumstantial; perhaps we could do whatever we’re commanded to do, perhaps not; this mitzvah, however, is not conditional. If there is no opportunity to make peace, we make an opportunity to make peace. And in the spirit of the new year, I’d like to suggest that we now could make that opportunity, to start over, and spend this year in our daily lives rebuilding what has been broken, healing the divisions we see in our midst.
To pursue peace, we must ask the question: what do we mean by that word, peace? The word can too easily conjure up a certain kind of cynicism; “can’t we all just get along” type stuff. Let me be clear by what I mean by thisaction, and what I don’t mean. In the spirit of Maimonides, I’ll begin with what I don’t mean. I do not mean capitulation on deeply held beliefs. I do not mean moral ambivalence or relativism, that somehow ‘many sides’ can all be equally right. Peace doesn’t merely mean quiet or order. This is not about shutting people up or shutting people down. Indeed, I’d argue that doing so is no peace at all. Many of us feel quite strongly about a whole range of issues, have attended rallies and vigils and protests; peace does not mean going home and shutting up. It does not mean minimizing folks’ lived experiences. None of those things lead to peace. They may lead to quiet, and it might lead to order, but the ache, the anger, the issues that were there before will still seep out, will still curdle our relationships with one another. I’m guessing all of us have apologized at some point or another for something we didn’t feel guilty of, just to get the conversation over and avoid the conflict. And I’m also guessing each of us have tried to share a deeply held belief—perhaps even with close friends—only to be shouted down, perhaps without the other person even understanding our point of view. Maybe we were doing the shouting. How many of us are still carrying the scars from that, still holding onto the anger we felt, the frustration we felt. How many of us are still carrying that around with us? Does that sound like peace to you? As we read in the prophets, we are forbidden to proclaim “Peace! When there is no peace.”
So, what is the pursuit of peace, really? What does our tradition mean when it compels us to seek peace and pursue it? First and foremost, it means recognizing our shared humanity. If we take seriously the idea from our Torah that all of us are created in God’s image, then we have a moral obligation to lift that up for ourselves and each other. Sounds easy, but it’s really, hard. To stop for a moment, stop our own anxieties, our own agenda, our own business long enough to look at the person and see that it is, in fact, A PERSON that you're looking at , requires a great deal of compassion and patience. Especially if they’re yelling at you. Rabbi Amy Eilberg, who has done a tremendous amount of conflict transformation work especially between Jews and Palestinians, talks about when she’s in difficult conversations, sometimes painful conversations with others, and before she responds with her own anger, her own need to be right, takes a deep breath and, looking at each person, says silently to herself ‘betzelem Elohim, betzelem Elohim, betzelem Elohim.” –“Created in God’s image, Created in God’s image, Created in God’s image.”
In those moments, when we want to just take the other person apart, to respond defensively, it takes a willingness to put down our own weapons, to not, in conflict, fight to win. Rabbi Elisa Koppel last year shared the idea of makhlokeht l’shem shamayim, a disagreement for the sake of heaven. Our tradition does not presume that conflict will cease to exist; there will always be conflict. But, how can we make said conflicts constructive, thoughtful, and productive
. How can we
avoid demonizing the other side, making broad generalizations of everyone who
disagrees with me? It might feel good in the moment, but is the hangover worth
it? I’ve been a Rotarian for a few years now, as is my father, and the hallmark
for the Rotary organization is something called the Four-Way test. The Four-way
test asks us to take the following questions into account before we speak with
one another: Is it the truth? Is it fair to all concerned? Will it build
goodwill? Is it to everyone’s benefit? It’s meant to be nonsectarian and
nonpartisan, but I can’t help but think of it as awfully Jewish. Can you
imagine having those four questions in your head before you spoke? I don’t know
about you, but I think it would help make a whole lot of conflicts much more
meaningful, and who knows, perhaps we might learn something from the other as a
That idea of learning, of being open and curious rather than closed and determined, is essential to the work of pursuing peace as well. That doesn’t mean being soft. It doesn’t mean giving up what we believe. It does mean being humble; listening to the other without interruption, even when it is hard. Perhaps especially when it is hard. It means being quick to listen carefully and slow to interject. It means being aware of one’s own feelings in the heated moment and recognizing them as authentic but not letting them drive the conversation. I’ve often shared my teacher Rabbi David Ellenson’s story of how, when he and his wife would get into a disagreement and the conversation got too heated she would say “David, this is where you can either be right or be married.” Our need to win cannot and should not take precedence over our need to maintain a relationship; we must respond graciously and acknowledge our own limits. So, when the person shares their pain, their own lived experience, we would be wise to listen respectfully, and expect the same from the person we’re speaking to, and apologize quickly if what we say in reflection turns out to be hurtful. That’s not being politically correct, it’s not being policed, it’s being a mensch; it’s being kind. And I think we can agree that we could use a little more kindness. Last Sukkot Ivan Thomas who created #wearelove came and led our congregation in a process where we could listen deeply and respectfully to each other’s stories. I doubt anyone who was there that night could say that they didn’t learn something new about the world, the person they interacted with, or themselves. And when we open ourselves up, when we respond with curiosity, we create the opportunity to do exactly that kind of learning. In contrast, Rabbi Eilberg recounts in her book From Enemy to Friend how she went to an academic panel where the moderator asked each panelist to ask the other a question, and one admitted she honestly couldn’t think of one question she could ask the others. They were so used to articulating their point of view, defending their point of view, that they hadn’t thought what it would mean to listen to one another.
By now you’ve probably realized that the kind of peace I’m describing is hard to achieve, especially in a world where it’s easy to go on the internet, see something that makes our blood boil and then go bananas. To do this work takes intentionality, self-awareness, humility and courage. Yes, courage: the courage to be vulnerable in the moment, to open yourself up to someone else’s world view. It takes compassion, honoring the holiness in the other, and a generosity of spirit. It’s not easy; we’ve fallen out of the habit. We want to repost memes and scream into the face of the other—and there’s always an “Other”. But just because something is hard doesn’t mean it isn’t worth doing. What if we committed to taking these values and, when we encounter someone with whom we disagree, someone with whom we’re in conflict, work to make them a part of the encounter. What if we strive, each one of us, to be a little more curious, a little humbler, a little more willing to listen to each other. A little more willing to hear someone else’s pain, and be aware of our own. A little more willing to transform the conflict rather than avoid it. Look, we’re not going to magically become the Dalai Llama or Reb Nachman of Bratzlav or Pope Francis—and frankly, each one of them have had moments they weren’t proud of. Each one of us, no matter how hard we try, will fall. God knows I have. But that’s not the point; the point is to pursue peace. We may never achieve it, not fully nor perfectly, but we must still seek out those opportunities and embrace them to the best of our abilities. Maybe we only change one conversation; sometimes that’s all it takes to make a difference in this world.
The poet Yehuda Amichai wrote the following:
In the place where we are right
Flowers will never grow in the spring.
The place where we are right
Is hard and trampled like a yard.
But doubts and loves dig up the world like a
Mole, a plough.
And a whisper will be heard in the place where the
Ruined house once stood.
Do we want to be right or in relationship? Do we want to continue to trample the ground and each other in service to our rage and pain, or do we want to plant new flowers of love and understanding? In this new year, I am going to commit myself to pursuing peace. I am going to commit myself to seek understanding, to respect and reflect, and to do what I can to shape the conflicts I encounter into conflicts for the sake of Heaven. And I deeply believe that, if each of us commits as well, we can begin to change the world around us, to move toward a culture of peace. As you leave today you will find the Rodef Shalom Agreement, a brit, a covenant you make with yourself. I encourage you to take one, and begin to do the work of exploring what it would mean for each of us to be that person in our lives. May it be so. Amen.
Rodef Shalom Agreement
I hereby agree, to do my utmost
in being mindful of myself
as a rodef shalom (pursuer of peace),
seeking to understand, respect and assist
seeking to understand, respect and assist
in constructively balancing conflicting
needs and perspectives,
between individuals and communities,
in the spirit of mahloket l’shem shamayim
(conflicts for the sake of Heaven).