Welcome! I am Rabbi Jonathan Biatch of Madison, Wisconsin. "Pulpit Perspectives: My Observations as a Congregational Rabbi" is published every two weeks to reflect my observations about life in my congregation and with my members. The opinions expressed here are solely my own. I invite you to join the dialogue!

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

The Soul of Israel, and the Weighing of Values

That Israel faces challenges should not be surprising.

She has lived in a dangerous neighborhood.  She has faced both overt and clandestine attacks on her territory.  And her enemies have consistently denied her existence, and refused to allow her to live in security.

Yet I am an optimist.  I believe that, in confronting her challenges, she always strives to achieve her ideals, such as these from the 13th paragraph of her Declaration of Independence:

“The state of Israel will be open for Jewish immigration and for the Ingathering of the Exiles.  It will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants.  It will be based on freedom, justice, and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel.  It will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race, or sex.  It will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education, and culture.  It will safeguard the holy places of all religions.  And it will be faithful to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations.”

To achieve these goals, by which values shall she live?  Which virtues shall guide Israel as she attempts to live in emblematic Jewish ways?

I suggest that one quality – one specific value – should lead Israel toward her future, especially as a Jewish state living out the principles we find in our religious tradition.  And that value is searching for peaceful ways of behaving toward others.

In the Hebrew of the Talmud, where we find this quality, we use the phrase “mipnei darchei shalom” – “for the sake of peace” – to illustrate our humble way of life.

Mipnei darchei shalom:  For the sake of peace, the Rabbis directed us to get along with our Jewish neighbors in ancient villages.  This was done, for example, through the establishing of zoning requirements for housing and businesses that occupied the same physical space.

Mipnei darchei shalom:  For the sake of peace, the Rabbis insisted that both Jews and non-Jews be permitted to bury their dead together, and to distribute community charity funds regardless of the recipients’ religious or national identity.

Mipnei darchei shalom – For the sake of peace, each person is to conduct him- or herself in imitation of the ways of God.  As Hillel our Sage said, “That which is hateful to you do not do to your neighbor.”

So we have this value – “for the sake of peace,” or mipnei darchei shalom – that directs us to sublimate our need to be ‘right’ and think about what it takes to get along well with others in our world.  In the Talmudic mind, this consideration transcends other needs.  This value directs our daily behavior, and causes us to defer our natural emotions and knee-jerk behaviors.

And why do we believe this is of value?  Because the acceptance of those unthinking emotions – and the actions that would come from them – can lead to enmity and strife, and the Rabbis wanted us to avoid struggle, striving, and contentiousness, and find peace.

I raise this issue because of the prolonged struggle in which the Palestinians and Jews have been engaged, about the recent missile attacks, and about the vote in the United Nations last week, which elevated the status of the burgeoning Palestinian state.

Individually we may feel a range of emotions about all of this.  We might desire to take extreme stands in one direction or another, whether on the topic of the military situation or the UN vote.  We can wring out hands and worry, speak out against one set of behaviors or another, and even contact American or Israeli decision makers to express our feelings.

But now that the fighting is paused; now that the UN has taken its vote and its decision is taking affect; now that many people on both sides have spoken about re-engaging in the peace process: the question is for us, how must one act now?  By which principles must we live, and which values should guide us in our emotions, opinions, and actions?

These questions are more real for our Israeli cousins who face existential challenges each day, and who engage in discussions such as this with much greater frequency.  How can they make their lives more secure, and which values must they exhibit, to move the peace process forward?

Mipnei darchei shalom – for the sake of peace,” each side can commit itself to actions and statements that encourage the building of mutual trust. Declarations of future political actions, whether regarding territory or extra-legal processes, do not advance the cause of peace.

Mipnei darchei shalom – for the sake of peace,” each side can actively engage one another, whether their intellectuals or their politicians – certainly against their extremists! – and strive to make the sacrifices of position and/or attitude that lead to peace.

Mipnei darchei shalom – for the sake of peace,” let each side take to heart the importance of planting good seeds for their future generations.  May they adopt a vision for future co-existence that will prevail over the perpetuation of prejudice and animosity!

May each of these entities, who have yet been unable to find the right solution to the challenge of peace-making, come to the negotiating table to talk, to engage, to search, and find, and to affect a lasting peace!

Let us do these things mipnei darchei shalom – for the sake of peace.