The events of yesterday are evoking responses throughout the broad spectrum of political opinion. There is so much noise out there that it hurts. We all know what we saw. And what we saw was a burning hatred pitting one American against another. It seems that hating our fellow American has become a kind of cottage industry and in the American fashion, if someone can make money out of anything, they will try. And there are lots of people who are trying to make money out of inciting each of us against another and ourselves. This is not a new thing.
In the Talmud there is a well-known passage attributed to Hillel that says, “Hillel would say: Be like the disciples of Aaron – a lover of peace and pursuer of peace.” No one would disagree with such a statement. It looks more like a Jewish bumper sticker than anything else. But there is so much more to it and it is found in the expression, “pursuer of peace.” How so?
The expression “pursuer of peace” (rodef shalom) is an oxymoron composed of two contradictory words. The word peace (shalom, of course) everyone is familiar with. It comes from the word meaning ‘to be whole.’ It is that first word, ‘rodeo’ that is so interesting.
You see, the root of word R.D.F. appears in the Bible more than 100 times (115, actually!) and, almost always, in manner and context that implies struggle and with great effort. So what is the connection between ‘chasing after’ and peace? Why do we have to chase after peace? Why not just be peaceful and surround ourselves with peace?
The answer I suggest is that peace is not just about us. Each of us can seek peace by isolating ourselves from the rest of the world, lighting the incense, listening to Enya (!) and drifting away to peaceful hibernation. That might be nice every so often but that is not the Jewish definition of peace. That is simply quietude. Peace is something we need to energetically pursue, struggle for, get in the middle of, and be active in creating. It is not the simple absence of conflict – although that’s a good start. It is the act of listening and understanding, encouraging courage while condemning violence, and helping to create a world-space more like the yeshiva when arguments are had and understood and less like battlefield where the ‘might makes right.’
Those who stormed the Capitol yesterday were not interested in peace. They shamed themselves not because of what they believe but because of what they did. It was a temper tantrum and was really no different than a child throwing their dinner against the wall because they didn’t like the vegetables. Only this tantrum cannot be cleaned up with a paper towel.
We can respond with violence in kind, for sure. Many this morning are responding exactly this way: with violent words, words that are threatening. Already these fellow Americans are being called ‘animals’ and ‘scum.’ This is not how we heal and this is not how we bring about peace. Peace, real peace and reconciliation, is not about beating up the other guy until he is quiet. That is what they tried to do yesterday. It never works. Peace takes effort and it takes a measure of risk, putting ourselves in an uncomfortable position that makes us vulnerable and, sometimes, not very popular. But peace is not about popularity. It is about creating a more perfect union – a more perfect union for our country and between each other. We all have disagreements: fine. But only we as individuals can actively reach out and literally create the bridge that leads to peace.
Today too many of us are feeling reflexive. I think we ought to feel reflective, instead. Do your words encourage violence or do they encourage the active pursuit of peace? Are they raging torrents of unbridled violent words or words that don’t simply increase the heat? Yesterday we saw lots of heat and very little light. Our Jewish response is turn down the heat and turn up the light. That takes energy. The only question now is how much energy toward peace is each of us willing to expend?