Covenant of peace as a response to violence

Violence breeds violence. It’s true on so many different levels. If we needed another proof of that, we have it at this very moment in my own backyard. The heinous kidnapping and murder of the three Israeli teenagers, Naftali, Gil-ad, and Eyal, may their memory be a blessing,took place in Gush Etzion, only a few minutes from my home. And then came the gruesome kidnapping and murder of Mohammed Abu Khdeir, not too far away in Jerusalem. And now the airways and social media – both Israeli and Palestinian — are full of calls for vengeance and violence. Of course, it is not everyone and it is not the majority, but it is a significant and vocal minority. And then the next thing you know, war and violence all around us!

Last week’s Torah portion, Balak, ends with violence. The Israelite men go astray after the daughters of Midian, and God reacts with tremendous wrath. In an act of extremist zealotry, Pinchas ben Elazar takes a spear in hand and kills an Israelite man and a Midianite woman engaged in an act of public fornication. God’s wrath is calmed.

The next stage in the saga unfolds in the Torah Portion of Pinchas, which we read this week. God’s lauds the intervention of Pinchas and bestows upon him a divine ‘covenant of peace’.

What is this ‘covenant of peace’? Might we not rather expect a covenant of zealotry? Why should peace be a reward for violence?

Rabbi Naftalie Tzvi Yehudah Berlin, known by the acronym Netziv, answers by way of a deep psychological insight. Violence, even when justified, leaves an ugly scar on the soul. The seeds of callous disregard for the preciousness of human life are implanted by every act of aggression, not matter what the context. A little bit of one’s humanity is lost.

God’s ‘covenant of peace’ is an antidote to the pernicious effects of Pinchas’s zealotry. It is a promise that he will be spared the almost inevitable lot of all perpetrators of violence.

The Netziv reminds us that violence of all types eats away at us from within, and a counterweight must be quickly provided to prevent the damage from spreading. It is true for the individual and it is true for the collective. And it is true for Palestinians and it is true for Israelis.

We must follow in God’s footsteps and do for our society — and the Palestinians must do for their society — what the Creator did for Pinchas! We must provide a covenant of understanding, brotherhood, and humanity, lest violence lead to the disfigurement of the collective divine image of our respective societies.

On Sunday July 6, two Palestinian partners of mine, together with local Gush Etzion settlers, made a condolence call to the bereaved parents of Naftali Frenkel. It was a courageous and unprecedented act on their part. They offered a covenant of peace, understanding and human empathy in place of what violence might have done to their souls and ours.

A mass condolence call of hundreds of Jews to the mourning tent of the parents of Mohammed Abu Khdeir, took place on Tuesday July 8. It sent a message both to them and to us that we will not become desensitized to the loss of human life, any human life.

Muslims are now marking the holy month of Ramadan, when they fast from sun up to sun down and engage in introspection and spiritual renewal. Our own fast of the 17th of Tamuz falls this year during Ramadan, on Tuesday July 15. We mourn the events that led up to the fall of the First and Second Temples. The destruction of the latter is attributed by our tradition to religious hatred and the violence of unchecked religious zealotry.

This year, we – Jews and Muslims who have joined together to seek out understanding and reconciliation – have decided to harness the concurrence of our respective fasts to create a day of religious protest against violence. We will fast together in the spirit of brotherhood, we will together study texts from both of religions, and we break our fast together. We hope that Jews and Muslims around the world will join us.

Violence breeds violence. But God’s covenant of peace can break the cycle. Let’s try – together! I know of no more promising path forward.

About the Author
Rabbi Hanan Schlesinger resides in Alon Shvut Israel. He serves as the Director of Memnosyne Israel, promoting interfaith, bridge building projects betweens Israeli settlers and local Palestinians. As the Executive Director and Community Rabbinic Scholar of the Jewish Studies Initiative of North Texas, he also flies to Dallas, Texas once a month to teach adult education classes within the Jewish community and to spearhead interfaith dialogue.
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