Most of the time I try my best to keep religion and politics separate, but you know, they are not really separate at all. This week I have been feeling torn and sad, weary and worried about the prospect of another all-out war in the Middle East and elsewhere. I have been feeling confused about the facts and tired of the opinions.
How did we end up with this life-destroying world that nobody seems to want? How did we end up with a planet of people so discouraged and exhausted because we are struggling to accomplish what can never be accomplished given the rules we are living by? And then we end up blaming ourselves and one another for our failures. It appears that greed, self-interest, fundamentalism, triumphalism, and coercive power are destroying the very life force of this planet. It feels like hope is so hard to find these days.
As change agents, activists, concerned citizens, caring human beings, we are attempting to change a global culture that has emerged. How many people on the planet are happy with what’s going on? Very few, I would think. Most of us are appalled by the aggression, corruption and collusion that are now so commonplace. We know this global culture has destroyed diversity and community; we witness how polarized we have become, how many enemies there are now to fear. And we know the world must change – it simply must.
In my struggles to understand, I often turn to the masters of the past for guidance. Rabbi Yisroel Salanter was the brilliant founder and spiritual father of the Mussar movement. Mussar gives us a foundational set of teachings about moral and personal development. It helps us figure out how to be in the world with dignity and humility and goodness and compassion.
There is a story that is told about Rabbi Salanter. It seems that on his deathbed this consummate teacher was still teaching, and this is what he told his students:
“When I was a young man, I set out to change the world. As I grew older, I saw that this was too ambitious, so I set out to change my people. This too, I realized, as I grew older, was too ambitious, so I set out to change my town. When I saw I could not even do this, I tried to change my family. Now, as an old man, I know with certainty that I should have started by changing myself. If I had started with myself, maybe then I would have succeeded in changing my family, the town, or perhaps my people – and who knows, maybe even the world.”
Now, my beloved rebbe and teacher, Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, has taught all his students how to be with sacred texts, whether it is a prayerbook or the Torah or Zohar or Talmud. He teaches that as we are reading, if there is a particular word or phrase that attracts our attention, we should stay with it and go into it. See what it triggers in us, where in our bodies and our hearts we are most feeling the holy touch.
In this week’s Torah reading, four words jumped off the page at me. Va-ye’ehav Yitzchak et Eisav / And Yitzchak loved Eisav (Gen. 25:28). There is a teaching [Rebbe Yaakov Dovid of Amshinov zt”l] that says that what we learn from this verse is that we should also love the wicked one. While Rebekah favoured Jacob, Yitzchak loved his son Eisav, and he wanted to bless him.
Now, often in ancient tales, twins who are not identical are complementary, each twin representing one-half of a complete personality, each having qualities the other lacks and lacking qualities the other possesses. Jacob represents the gentle, cerebral, spiritual side of a person, and Eisav represents the active, physical side. When the Torah describes their relationship struggles, beginning in the womb, and continues on to portray them as rivals growing up, it may be telling us that these two sides are struggling within each of us. The line between good and evil runs through every human heart.
Rebbe Nachman teaches that “shalom”- peace, means to make peace between opposites, whether those opposites are within you or with one who is ‘against’ you.
But how do we do this? My purpose in this teaching is not to add to our despair. My intention is to increase our clarity so that we might discern wise action.
So here is a suggestion. In Pirkei Avot (1:12) Rabbi Hillel says “Be of the disciples of Aaron, loving peace and pursuing peace, loving your fellow creatures, and bringing them near to Torah.” There is an amazing teaching from Rabbi Eliezer Azkari*, who wrote over 400 years ago that the reason Hillel said “BE a disciple of Aaron,” instead of saying, “LEARN from Aaron,” is because Hillel wants to tell us that we can actually BE such a person.
When someone has caused us suffering, we usually feel that we’ll never really be able to make real Shalom-peace with them – at most we’ll forgive them. However, Hillel is teaching us that we can BE and we must BE true disciples of Aaron, loving peace, pursuing peace, BE-ing peace, and loving people.
And then Rabbi Eliezer brings another awesome teaching! He says we learn in the holy Zohar [parshat Shlach] that just like there are yeshivahs academies of learning – here in this world, there are also yeshivas in heaven. There in heaven Aaron the High Priest has his own yeshiva and its name is MESIFTA d’RECHIMUSA – THE YESHIVA OF LOVE! And all who follow in the path of Aharon haKohen in this world will merit to BE a student of his in his heavenly yeshiva MESIFTA d’RECHIMUSA – THE YESHIVA OF LOVE as well! I hope that we’ll all be there together.
But back to this world. The way I see it, there are perhaps two paths to follow: one leads to meaning and further strength, the other leads to increased exhaustion and despair. We can choose the path of being peace, not with the impossible intention of changing the world, but with the very do-able intention of changing ourselves.
Let us focus on transforming ourselves to be little islands of good caring people, doing right work, being of service where we can, loving peace. We human beings are worth struggling for, and so is this planet, our only home.
Let us be the people who have learned how to be decent, gentle and brave as the dark ocean that has emerged continues to storm around us. Aimed with the tools of compassion and insight, we may discover that decency, gentleness and bravery are available not only to us but to all human beings.
Because when a critical mass of us have worked on changing ourselves, I believe then, and only then, the world will change.
Please pray for the well-being and security of all our brothers and sisters, wherever there is struggle. May all who huddle together and hope for safety and peace be so blessed. May all who serve do so with the greatest possible integrity and well-being. May those who are not in the Middle East be granted healthy and holy ways to support the peaceful coexistence of those who live there.
And let us say: Amen.
- Rabbi Sholom Brodt
- Margaret Wheatley, So Far From Home
- *Sefer Chareidim, Rabbi Eliezer Azkari zt”l, assistant to the holy Ari z”l
- Rabbi Goldie Milgram (blessing)