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Give Some More Peace

My Yom Kippur evening sermon about about the importance of making peace with those closest to us. Pursuing peace is not so much about nations but instead about us.


John Lennon sings, “All we are saying is give peace a chance.” I prefer Elvis Costello’s “What’s so funny ‘bout peace, love and understanding.” And every Shabbat we pray, “Shalom rav—grant abundant peace” and “Oseh Shalom—may the One who creates peace on high, bring peace to us.” The examples are endless. Peace is the stuff of countless songs. Shalom is one of our prayerbook’s favorite words. Peace is elusive. It often appears distant. Our longing for it persists. And so, peace constitutes are most fervent, and frequent, prayers. And it obviously makes for some of our best songs.

Back to Costello. “As I walk through this wicked world/ Searchin' for light in the darkness of insanity/ I ask myself, is all hope lost?/ Is there only pain and hatred, and misery?/ And each time I feel like this inside/ There's one thing I wanna know/ What's so funny 'bout peace, love and understanding?” Aside from the discovery that your rabbi’s musical tastes are stuck in the early 80’s (“Same as it ever was”), why is it that every generation who has ever lived pines after peace but never fully experiences it? Why is peace so fleeting? Why is shalom so seemingly unattainable?

All around us are examples of its absence. Every day we are barraged by news of violence and war. Take the war in Ukraine as but one example. Let us pause and take note. Praise is due to the Ukrainians for fighting for democracy and against the tyranny of Russia. Who would have expected that a Jewish comedian named Volodymyr Zelensky would have rallied his citizens as well as much of the world against Vladimir Putin’s onslaught. He is deserving of unending praise. Accolades are also due to President Biden and our own country for helping to lead the world in its support of Ukraine’s noble fight. There is no question who is right and who is wrong. Ukraine is on the side of right. And Russia wrong.

There should be little doubt whose victory we should be praying for and who our nation must continue to support. Leon Wieseltier offers these words: “The most consequential event of our time, I pray, will be the heroism of the Ukrainians. Here are men and women fighting and dying for liberal democracy. It was beginning to seem as if such a thing were no longer possible. Worse, no longer desirable.” The Ukrainians are fighting for everything we believe in. They are fighting against those who disparage the freedoms we cherish and the democracy to which we must continually aspire. Praise to Zelensky who seems to know better the true meaning of courage and the real meaning of democracy and that most of all, such ideals are worth defending and fighting for. I pray that President Biden finds the strength to do even more in support of Ukraine.

Do I pray for peace for Ukraine? Yes. Do I also pray not just for the cessation of this war and the realization of the Ukrainian people’s aspiration to become a full-fledged democracy? Also, yes. You can be a peacenik and support a just war and such a righteous struggle. Our tradition is not absolutist. Sometimes our ideals prevent us from making peace or even delay us in negotiating peace deals. I continue to wonder. Is this what stops us from realizing our millennial hope of shalom?

The Israeli poet, Yehudah Amichai writes: “Not the peace of a cease-fire,/ not even the vision of the wolf and the lamb,/ but rather/ as in the heart when the excitement is over/ and you can talk only about a great weariness….Let [peace] come/ like wildflowers,/ suddenly, because the field/ must have it: wildpeace.” I have often found comfort in this poem. It placates my fervent hope, and prayers, for peace while also upholding the devastating necessity of waging war in defense of our ideals or taking up arms to better guarantee our security. Amichai, like most Israelis of his generation, fought in far too many wars. In addition to fighting alongside the British against the Nazis, he fought in Israel’s War of Independence and the Yom Kippur War. Many of his poems struggle with the terrible costs of war. He writes: “God has pity on kindergarten children,/ He pities school children — less./ But adults he pities not at all./ He abandons them,/ And sometimes they have to crawl on all fours/ In the scorching sand/ To reach the first aid station,/ Streaming with blood.”

How can you not read this poem and not scream with passion, “Oseh shalom!” The prayer’s words are as if to say, “Oh God, You make peace in the heavens, please make peace for us down here.” Right now! Or to paraphrase Amichai, “Let peace sprout from the ground and grow naturally.” I understand the prayer. I hear the poet’s lament. In fact, Amichai read “God has pity on kindergarten children” after the signing of the Oslo Accords when peace between Israelis and Palestinians briefly appeared nearer. Peace remains so very distant. Perhaps even more so for the soldier who bleeds for his or her nation.

The prophets take up the cause. Isaiah writes in the eighth century BCE: “Lo yisa goi el goi cherev, v’lo yilm’du od milchamah. Nation shall not take up sword against nation; they shall never again know war.” (Isaiah 2) The prophet also experienced war and hoped for its eradication. It is unfortunate that his words are often translated as “never again know war.” The Hebrew is clear. Isaiah hopes that we will never even have the need to learn about war. His vision is grander than most translations suggest. We will have little need for an army. We will never even have to teach people how to use weapons or even instruct them in how to defend themselves. It is a messianic dream that war colleges will be dismantled and that the tools of war will be refashioned into everyday items like farming utensils.

It is of course a distant dream. This peace thing is far, far off. It remains the stuff of prayers and songs. That is what makes it a really good prayer and why shalom appears so many times in our prayerbook. Prayer is not meant, however, as a cure all. It does not magically create peace. It points us toward a better tomorrow. Perhaps it inspires us to action. Perhaps it goads us to do more. Then again, we are not diplomats who can broker peace treaties. We are left to pray for our nation and world and leave the peace-making to professionals. But why can’t we be peacemakers as well? Why is peace only for the Shimon Peres’s and Anwar Sadat’s of the world? Why is it not about each and every one of us?

Perhaps the problem is that we think peace only has to do with nations. Our tradition offers insights. Our rabbis offer us practical advice. They teach. Maybe we can’t heal the world, so let’s make peace in our families, let’s heal our friendships, let’s heal ourselves. Let’s make peace where we can actually and readily make peace. It’s the same insight that drives the rabbis to insist we should only pray for rain in the rainy season. We do not pray for rain during the land of Israel’s dry summer months but in the winter when we expect nature to provide it. Look again to our prayers. Oseh Shalom and Shalom Rav say nothing about war. It is just that when we hear the word peace, we think about it only in reference to its opposite. Maybe that’s the problem. Our prayers may be meant to turn us inward and focus energies on ourselves rather than toward nations and toward things about which we have little control. Our prayers are meant to inspire us to act on our own souls.

The word shalom comes from the root meaning complete or whole. In the Torah one of the sacrifices is called “zevach shelamim.” (Leviticus 3) This is often translated as a peace offering but it would be better to understand it as sacrifice of well-being. Shalom can mean wholeness, happiness or even health. The root implies “to repay or make good.” In fact, one of the hallmarks of this sacrifice is that it was shared with others. Unlike other sacrifices portions of the zevach shelamim were given to friends and guests. A portion was offered on the altar, another portion was given to the priest and the remainder was shared with friends and family. Zevach shelamim is shared. We make good on our obligation to others. The meaning of shalom can then be understood as to share with others, to bring others into your circle, to make good on our commitment to the world at large by beginning with the world nearby.

That is one of the main goals of our Torah. It is about inculcating a sense that we are in fact our brother’s keepers, that we have a shared responsibility for our neighbors and friends. The Torah begins with this message. Don’t behave like Cain who when God asked, “Where is your brother Abel?” thought it legitimate to say, “I do not know. Am I my brother’s keeper?” (Genesis 4)

We have likewise lost our sense of responsibility to others. We have lost our devotion to the meaning of the public square that is defined by sharing and where we care for one another. Instead of asking ourselves, “How might my actions impact others?” we too often say, “What can I gain? How can I profit? How will this enable me to get ahead?” We spend our days on the internet, searching for like-minded opinions and new toys to purchase. Lewis Hyde writes, “The desire to consume is a kind of lust. But consumer goods merely bait this lust, they do not satisfy it. The consumer of commodities is invited to a meal without passion, a consumption that leads to neither satiation nor fire.” The fire of a meal is only found when it is shared. Recall, the sacrifice is about doing for others. We construct fence after fence around our homes and our lives where everything is deemed private, and nothing is shared. Doing for others is the essence of making peace. Caring for friends is what peacemaking is truly about. Opening our hearts to others—to their concerns and their pains—is the essence of shalom.

People often think that the central message of Yom Kippur is about drawing close to God. We attend synagogue for the better part of this day. We fast and beseech God to forgive us. And yet there is this sense that before we can even approach God, we must draw close to the people in our lives. Beginning on the first day of the month preceding this month of Tishrei we are to turn to our friends and family members, acknowledge our mistakes and ask their forgiveness. The tradition says in effect, “Don’t even bother asking God for forgiveness if you have not asked others to forgive you.” You cannot get close to God if you refuse to get close to other people. That is the central message of these High Holidays.

Even though this day of Yom Kippur is widely observed, Sukkot is probably the more emblematic Jewish holiday. On Sukkot, which begins in four days, we are supposed to spend a week in our sukkahs and invite as many guests as possible to share meals with us. On Shabbat evening we pray that God might protect us with a sukkat shalom—a sukkah of peace, but in reality we are supposed to create that very sukkah here and now. It is defined not by its flimsy walls but instead by the embrace of friends, the joy and song that accompanies sharing a meal with those you love. You make peace by sharing. You want more peace, then spend more time with others.

Sure, it can sometimes be really, really challenging, especially if you find out you disagree with them or heaven forbid, sit on the other side of the political divide from them. But when is being with other people ever been easy or effortless? We spend so much time on social media reinforcing our strongly held beliefs and tightly felt notions that we forget there are lots of people who don’t think the way we do or believe what we do. How many of us still have friends who voted for candidates whose political affiliations are not our own? I know it’s hard and sometimes uncomfortable, but who said friendship is all about comfort and agreement?

This is why the rabbis teach: “Be of the disciples of Aaron, loving peace and pursuing peace?” (Avot 1). Peace is not about nodding your head in agreement. It is not about convincing your friends of the rightness of your opinions. Shalom is instead about the embrace. It is a pursuit. Making peace is not about nations. The rabbis were thinking about us and our friends. Be prepared to run after it.

Pick up the phone and reach out to a friend who you have not spoken to in a while. (And please, speak to them. Don’t text them.) Repair the mistakes you made. Forgive the wrongs done to you. Say, “I’m sorry,” more often than you think is necessary or even required. Forgive more often than you think is deserved. That is what pursuing means. Discard the notion that compromise is a dirty word. It is not. It is the single most important act we perform to sustain relationships.

Do you know why the rabbis hold up Aaron as the model of a peacemaker? It is because he was even willing to build a Golden Calf to keep the peace. I know it is a seemingly outrageous, and even sinful, example. And yet they still hold him up as a model for us all. It is as if to say, “Be prepared to go to extraordinary, and even surprising, and yes, even radical, ends to make peace.” Why? Because friendships are worth it. Because being with other people demands it.

Asking God for forgiveness is easy compared to saying “I’m sorry” to another person. God is all forgiving, but people, well they hold grudges. They sometimes even withhold forgiveness. I admit. There are times when the compromise required to sustain a relationship means sacrificing too much of yourself and who you truly are. It is true that not all friendships are worth repairing, but I would venture this guess: more are worth preserving than you probably think. Ask yourself these simple questions. “Can I count on them? Can they count on you?” If the answers to both of those questions are “Yes” then fashion yourself into a peacemaker and start making peace with those closest and nearest to you. Pursue peace. This will make you more whole and more complete than you might imagine. This will bring you more shalom than you ever thought possible and maybe even one day, as our prophets dreamed, to the world at large.

Peace is about what we do for others. It is not for prayers alone. It is really found in how we care for those nearby, for those sitting closest to us, for those who inhabit what we erroneously call our small, private worlds. There is nothing small about our worlds. There is nothing private about our lives.

Become a peacemaker. Bring shalom into your life, into the lives of others and into our world. That peace is within your reach and within your grasp. Shalom is not so much the stuff of our prayers. It is not even about messianic dreams. Peace is instead the work of our hearts and our hands. Shalom is the pursuit we are supposed to do day in and day out.

May you be the one who makes peace if not on high, then for each and every one of us.