Judaism: The Siren Song of Peace
Rabbi Josh GersteinThe writer serves as the Jerusalem Campus Rabbi for the Aardvark Israel Immersion Program. Previously, he served as Av Bayit and Talmud Instructor at Yeshivat Orayta, a post High School Yeshiva in the Old City. Originally from Lancaster, PA, Rav Josh came to Israel in 2007 and lives with his wife in Jerusalem.
If I had to choose one underlying and central theme in Judaism, I would suggest that the virtue of peace is the most fundamental. ]
The great Sage Hillel, in Ethics of the Fathers, notes, “Be of the students of Aaron, loving peace and pursuing peace” (1:12). Three times daily, Jews around the world recite the following prayer, “Establish peace, goodness, blessing, graciousness, kindness and mercy upon us and all of Your people Israel.” Additionally, our Sages teach that all blessings end with a request for peace (Yalkut Shimoni, Naso 711).
]Peace is so valued that the Talmud in Tractate Shabbat 10b writes that one cannot greet his friend “Shalom (Peace)” in the bathhouse, because the very word Shalom is one of the names of God.
Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, the first Chief Rabbi in Israel during the British Mandate period, explains the abovementioned Talmudic statement. He writes in Ain Aya 10b, his commentary on the Talmud, “Peace needs to be rooted in the mind as the holiest of ideals to the extent that it be included amongst the names of the Holy One Blesses be He.”
Furthermore, Rabbi Yosi HaGalili writes in the Midrash, "How meritorious is peace? Even in a time of war one must initiate all activities with a request for peace.” (Leviticus Rabba Tzav 9) The Talmud, in Tractate Gittin 59b, writes, "The entire Torah is for the sake of the ways of Shalom." And finally, Maimonides writes in his laws of Chanukka 4:14, “Great is peace, as the whole Torah was given in order to promote peace in the world, as it is stated, 'Her ways are pleasant ways and all her paths are peace.”
It is undeniably clear, from the sources and Sages quoted above who stack among the greatest Jewish thinkers and leaders throughout the generations, that peace and the pursuit of it is a noble and central idea to Judaism.
If peace is such a fundamental tenet in Jewish practice and theology, then in our time, the Peace Process in the Middle East should also be at the collective forefront of Jewish consciousness. Since the inception of the modern day State of Israel, peace with her Arab neighbors has always been on the agenda as a highest priority.
While true and lasting peace is a great and noble ideal, we must not become blinded by its “siren song” and refuse to see the reality as it exists in front of our eyes. Peace is not a one-sided decision or state of mind; peace is the state of affairs that exists between two individuals or societies when they live harmoniously with mutual understanding and respect between one another.
Some might assume that it is the realm of government and politicians alone to pave the way for peace in the region, however there is of course another source we can turn to for advice: the Torah.
The Torah is called “Torat Chaim-The Living Torah” because it is not just a book of spiritual do’s and don’ts, it is a living guide that offers insight and direction into our everyday affairs. Anyone who desires a true and lasting peace between Israel and its neighbors would do well take its words to heart.
The Book of Genesis contains stories about the lives of the Jewish Patriarchs, and the biblical commentator Nahmanides (d.1270) writes, "The actions of the ancestors are repeated in the lives of their children." These stories are not just recorded for the sake of posterity, but are to be learned from in order to better appreciate and handle our own everyday situations. The 20th Century philosopher George Santayana expressed a similar idea, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
What, then, can our Jewish past and the stories of our Patriarchs teach us regarding today’s Peace Process? We find that the first time that the Torah recounts the concept of a peace treaty, it is between Abraham and Avimelekh, the King of Gerar; we encounter the figure of Avimelekh when Abraham’s travels brings him to the area of his rule.
Suspecting that Avimelekh would kill him in order to capture his beautiful wife Sarah, Abraham instead called her his sister. And true to form, Avimelekh proceeded to snatch Sarah, certainly without her consent nor that of her protector. And so his true character emerged: Avimelekh was a man lacking in high moral character and believed that anything that he could take by force rightfully belonged to him. It is only with God’s intervention through a divine dream that Sarah is released, and Abraham noted, "There is no fear of God in this place, and I would have been murdered over my wife." (Genesis 20:11).
In the chapters that follow, the Torah describes another meeting between Abraham, Avimelekh and his general, Pikhol; this time Avimelekh is interested entering into a treaty with Abraham. However, in response, Abraham chastises Avimelekh for having stolen his well. Avimelekh, playing innocent of the deed, argues, "I didn't know who did this thing, you didn't tell me, and I never heard of it until today." (Genesis 21:23).
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, the Chief Rabbi of Efrat, on this verse writes, “Aside from the inherent contradiction in his words - first he says he did not succeed in finding the culprit and then he says he didn't know the incident ever happened - "one thinks he dost protest too much." (Torah Lights: Genesis) Yet, despite Avimelekh's apparent duplicity, Abraham nevertheless makes a treaty with him. Abraham proceeds to gift him with sheep and cattle, and it must be noted --and it is truly remarkable -- that in this treaty, Abraham gives without receiving any physical token in return, from Avimelekh. (Genesis 21:27, 32).
Immediately following this incident, God commands Abraham to offer his only son Isaac as a whole burnt offering, "And it happened after these things." (Genesis 22:1). The Rashbam cites a Midrash which suggests that the binding of Isaac is in fact a punishment to Abraham for having forged a treaty with Avimelekh. As Rabbi Riskin notes, “Entering a treaty with a treacherous individual for a number of generations puts one's progeny at risk - and Abraham has no right to jeopardize his children's lives. In order to impress upon Abraham the error of his ways, G-d commands him to sacrifice his son!” (Torah Lights: Genesis)
With regard to making peace with an enemy, the primary message that the Torah relates to us is as follows: if peace is established with a person of questionable moral integrity, then not only will the peace process not succeed, but it will also have dire consequences for the future generations of the Jewish people.
And so it continues. The verses in Parshat Toldot relate that Isaac, Abraham’s son, is forced by famine to travel to the land of the very same Avimelekh, the King of the Philistines, with whom his father had forged a treaty (Genesis 26:1). In time, Isaac amassed great wealth in the land, but due to his neighbors’ jealousy, he was driven out and the wells dug by his father were stopped up. Avimelekh then approached Isaac in order to sign another peace treaty with him, which took place in Be’er Sheva.
The peace between Abraham and Avimelekh did not last—not even for a generation – for his son Isaac was required to pledge more gifts while once again receiving no physical tokens in return for a promise of peace. And while there was a period of calm and quiet following this treaty, the fact that the passages immediately after this event relate the marriage of Esau to the daughter of Biri the Hittite, one of the nations whom the Patriarchs were most adamant about not intermarrying with, is most telling.
This was a major source of bitterness to Isaac and Rebecca, and according to Rabbi Riskin, was a direct punishment and repercussion of the treaty with Avimelekh. Ultimately, forging peace with an untrustworthy and unreliable partner will lead to untold harm for the Jewish home.
It is abundantly clear that the Torah is speaking directly to our times.
This past week, as part of the renewal of the Peace Process, the Israeli government released 26 Palestinian terrorists, the majority of whom were jailed for committing acts of terror, culminating in the murder of countless innocents.
At the core of their belief, the Palestinian Authorities Charter calls for the “armed liberation of all of Palestine” and the “elimination of Zionism in Palestine” which should make it obvious that the channels of mutual understanding and respect between both parties will inevitably encounter resistance.
Just as Abraham and Isaac made the mistake of attempting peace with Avimelekh, so too we may be falling into this same trap.
May we all have the courage and fortitude to realize that though peace is of upmost importance, getting caught up in the “siren song” of peace will not make the situation better, but will only bring about a far more dangerous reality for ourselves as well as for the coming generations.