William Hamilton

Pursue. Don’t Solve

Why is the generation that’s been most instructed about tolerance, becoming less and less tolerant? You could ask the same question about bias. And about inclusion. It almost seems like the more we try to educate toward a specific value, the harder time we have living it. 

Of course there may be lots of causes for this. Too much rigidity in the educating process. Too much faith in bright ideas. Too little regard for the intensity of our worries and wishes.  

One thought occurred to me as we begin the Torah’s fourth book this Shabbat, is that doing work on our inner-lives is hard. Really hard. We think it’s easier than fighting to change systems. Struggling to enact new legislation or policy feels like quicksand, compared to working on yourself. But as we prepare to meander through the Wilderness of Sinai, we learn that even work on ourselves is slow going. 

Just ask yourself when was the last time you successfully curbed a dysfunctional drive inside you? In reversing a bad habit? Procrastinating. Drowning in self-pity. You name it. Inner-life problems aren’t math problems. They aren’t so easy to fix after all.

Tal Becker, architect of the Abraham Accords, recently made a compelling point: the Psalmist (34:15)  urges “seek peace and pursue it” not “seek peace and achieve it.” There’s a keen appreciation here for 1) the variables we don’t control, and for 2) the forces that don’t hold still. 

This is why the Book of Numbers is invaluable. Its message now clicks for me: pursue, don’t solve. Achieving is less like flipping a switch and more like turning a dial. And the surest way to turn that dial, inside yourself and in your interactions with others, is to pursue goals on a tried and true path. Pursue especially when remedies get more remote. 

Once upon a time, after the end of Judaism’s holiest day, Yom Kippur, the masses were following the High Priest home from Jerusalem’s Temple. When they saw Shemaya and Avtalyon, two righteous converts, sages revered from their piety and learning (Avot 1:10-11), they veered off to follow them instead. When the self-confident High Priest saw this, he turned and made a snide remark: “Peace be unto the descendants of the nations of the world.” That is, to those who don’t descend directly from religious royalty. His words landed like a dart.

Our two sages gently replied, “Peace be unto the descendants of the nations of the world who behave in the manner of Aaron.” That is, those who don’t descend from Aaron can still behave more like he did. Aaron was a pursuer of peace by way of the sacred lessons of Torah (Avot 1:12). Conveniently, we can now reboot our closeness to Torah this Tuesday night on Shavuot

Sometimes veering off in a different direction puts you on a better path. 

About the Author
Rabbi William Hamilton has served as rabbi (mara d'atra) of Kehillath Israel in Brookline, MA since 1995.
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