During his Middle East visit last week, the new American president injected a new sense of urgency to the “peace process” with our Arab neighbors. Can we please Donald Trump and give him a peace deal that would propel his presidency into unprecedented success? Is that within our control? Or are we cursed to endless cycles of violence arising from the lack of willing negotiating partners?
The Torah has an answer. As we ease out of the Book of Vayikra/Leviticus into the Shavuot holiday and the Book of Bamidbar, recounting a Jewish desert journey replete with war against our enemies and internal strife, we have been given a roadmap of how we can control the peace process.
In the closing portion of Vayikra, G-d promises: “I will grant peace in the land, and you shall lie down undisturbed by anyone” (Leviticus 26-6). In the very next verse, G-d continues with a promise that “you will pursue your enemies and they will fall by the sword before you” (Leviticus 26-7).
Our Sages have wondered about the order of these blessings. How could peace come before vanquishing our enemies? Is it prudent to go to bed care-free when Hamas rockets are afoot and our enemies are arming themselves into the next war?
One answer to this tension that I particularly liked is that peace among ourselves must come before we can vanquish our enemies. If we manage to achieve peace among the Jews, then we will be able to make peace with the others.
But is Jewish peace a realistic prospect? Does it require unity of views, at least as to what we can offer our neighbors? If so, peace among Jews would seem almost more difficult to achieve than an arrangement with the Arab world.
Internal peace according to the Torah, however, means Jewish solidarity rather than a single voice and opinion. And solidarity, or the good society, means a national community where we all have one other’s backs.
In his insightful Times of Israel commentary on the Behar-Behukotai closing portions of Leviticus (“Parshat BeHar BeHukotai: Judaism’s Societal Model”), my friend Gidi Grinstein described the Torah’s commitment to balancing wealth creation with the redistribution of resources to the under-privileged.
Gidi writes: “The societal outlook of Judaism has always been a balancing act between legitimizing wealth creation both for individuals and communities, on the one hand, and obligating the sharing of wealth in support of both individual and collective needs, on the other hand. This outlook is anchored in the view that economic disparities can destabilize society, and that wealth redistribution is essential for social cohesion.”
Peace, then, requires an effective system of redistributive justice and, as Gidi also points out, a partnership between the public and private spheres: “Jewish holy days emphasize the collective and individual responsibility toward the poor and needy in the community and beyond.”
The Torah asks us to pursue this internal peace with proactivity and inclusiveness.
In the final reading of Leviticus, it also tells us that “when your brother diminishes and his hand falters before you, you must strengthen him, stranger and resident alike, as he lives with you.” (Leviticus 25-35).
Rashi points out that we should not wait for our fellows to fall before we intervene, but rather we must do so as soon as they become vulnerable: “Do not allow him to go down and fall such that it will be hard to bring him back up. To what can this be likened? To a heavy load on a donkey. While it is still atop the donkey, one person can hold and straighten it up. If it falls on the floor, five will not be able to pick it up.”
As we re-experience receiving the Torah, let us renew our private and collective commitment to our fellow Jews and Arab and other neighbors alike, and be on the lookout for the vulnerable who need strengthening.
There is no dearth of places to search for opportunities for positive action. The Times of Israel just reported new research showing that growing poverty, neglect, and inadequate infrastructure are threatening the security of the State (see Raoul Wootliff, “Derelict Economy Could Sink `Titanic’ Israel, Experts Warn”). Let us honor Shavuot by having each other’s backs, and perhaps we will be able to deliver the gift of peace to the world. Chag sameach!