Be Lovers of Peace
Parashat Tetzaveh, Exodus 27:20–30:10
Rabbi Isaac Roussel, Congregation Zera Avraham, Ann Arbor, MI
Our parasha this week focuses on the making of the priestly garments, including those of the Kohen Gadol. In Exodus 19:6 God says to Israel, “You shall be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” So in reality we are all priests. The kohanim are just the priests to the priests. But Israel as a whole are priests to the nations of the world. Just as there were special garments for the kohanim, we have our special garments, denoting our vocation as priests; for example, tallit and tefillin.
Aaron, our first high priest, was known as a great peacemaker. Pirke Avot 1:12 says “Be among the disciples of Aaron, a lover of peace and pursuer of peace; love all fellow creatures, and bring them near to Torah.” As priests, this is one of our most important callings. And this is why communal peace is so important to the rabbis. Time and again throughout the Talmud, we see a deep concern for peace; even adjusting rulings to engender good relationships between people. There are stories of rabbis who even allow themselves to be denigrated in the interest of peace.
It is especially important for us to be pursuers of peace in our highly polarized society. I have been troubled these last few years with how contentious elections have become, and how dismissive people have become of others’ opinions and positions on difficult social issues. It often devolves into name calling. Conservatives call liberals “libtards” and “snowflakes”. Liberals call conservatives “rednecks” and “wing nuts”. Such labels are denigrating and dehumanizing, no better than racial pejoratives.
People also use social media to blast others, wielding “their truth” like a sledgehammer. Rabbi Nachman’s words from two centuries ago apply so well in our modern context. He says, “Even on occasion when they do meet and converse, their words are not heard due to the climate of jealousy, spite and disdain. Aggression and the desire to win arguments cannot bear the truth. The main reason why most people are far from God is strife, which has become widespread in the world as a result of our sins” (Likutey Moharan I, 27). Social media today is rife with aggression, spite, and disdain.
To be peace-loving followers of Aaron, we need to avoid getting drawn into such behavior. It behooves us to keep in mind that these are complex issues facing our society and that both sides of a question can have equally compelling arguments and valid viewpoints.
In the Talmud Moses asks God for a clear-cut Torah. God refuses because it would be too rigid. God tells Moses to learn to argue the 49 pros and the 49 cons and then go with the majority opinion. (Why 49? No one really knows. But a possible answer comes from another story in the Talmud where Moses asks God for all 50 levels of understanding, and God tells him that humans can only handle 49.)
Because of the great importance of learning to listen to each other’s opinions, it also says in the Talmud that one may not be appointed to the Sanhedrin unless he can argue from Scripture why reptiles are kosher! In other words, our Sages wanted judges who were not rigid and unwilling to hear all sides of an argument. This is clearly hyperbole to make the point.
There is a story told about a discussion between Bismarck, the Chancellor of Germany, and Disraeli, the Prime Minister of England (and also a Jew). Bismarck said that he wished he could limit his ministers of parliament to only two minutes of talking each, because he already knew the right decision. Disraeli replied that if no one in parliament disagreed with him, he would go out and hire people to argue with him! Bismarck asked him, “Why would you do that?” Disraeli replied, “It’s an old family tradition.” He recognized the need for peaceful discussion and disagreement.
In Yeshua’s day there were two main schools of Pharisees, Hillel and Shammai. They often disagreed on the application of Torah, but usually their arguments were constructive and peaceful. On the 9th of Adar in 66 CE, however, their argument erupted into violence and many people were killed, some say as many as 3000! This was such a catastrophe that the 9th of Adar became a minor fast day. In modern times, a group of rabbis formed an organization teaching people how to peacefully disagree, and they called it the 9 Adar Project (see www.9adar.org). The 9th of Adar is this week, on February 14th.
It is hard to handle disagreements peacefully, as it requires us to be humble and admit that we may only have 49 levels of truth, not all 50. And to admit that we may have our own biases that blind us from the validity other people’s perspectives. It requires us to have respect and empathy for our opponents. It requires us to develop deep listening skills and to learn from other people.
As lovers of peace, we are required to eliminate strife, which is defined as angry or bitter disagreement over fundamental issues. Rav Shaul lists strife along with idolatry, sexual immorality, and sorcery (Gal 5:19–21)! In his letter to the Corinthians he says, “You are involved in strife because you are spiritually immature” (1 Cor 3:3). Proverbs 6 says “There are six things Adonai hates, seven which he detests: a haughty look, a lying tongue, hands that shed innocent blood, a heart that plots wicked schemes, feet swift in running to do evil, a false witness who lies with every breath, and him who sows strife among brothers” (emphasis mine).
Yeshua said, “Love your enemies and do good. . . . Then your reward will be great and you will be called sons of the Most High” (Luke 6:35). Sometimes our “enemies” are people that we disagree with.
As Jewish followers of Messiah Yeshua, I urge us all to avoid strife, to avoid getting sucked into vicious arguments, denigrating those with whom we disagree, and blasting people with our “truth”. We need to set an example for the Messianic Community and the world. We are priests and should always strive to engender peaceful discussions.
May we be “49 people,” willing to listen to all sides of an argument.
May we have humility, awareness of our own biases, and empathy for our opponents, and be deep listeners.
May we be followers of Aaron, lovers of peace and pursuers of peace.
Then we will be joint-heirs with our Messiah, and called sons of the Most High!