One of Judaism’s recursive themes is peace as an ideal. While the idea of peace has taken off, it’s not a trivial thing.
R’ Jonathan Sacks notes that peace as a utopian ideal is one of Judaism’s revolutionary original ideas. For most of history, the utopian ideal most religions and cultures strived for was domination, subjugation, and victory.
Judaism’s religious texts overwhelmingly endorse compassion and peace; the love and the pursuit of peace is one of Judaism’s fundamental principles – בקש שלום ורדפהו. Avos d’Rabbi Nosson remarks that the most heroic act is not in defeating your enemies, but turning them into friends.
The Midrash intuitively teaches that the world persists only with peace, and the Gemara expounds that the entire Torah exists to further peace – דְּרָכֶיהָ דַרְכֵי-נֹעַם; וְכָל-נְתִיבוֹתֶיהָ שָׁלוֹם.
Aside from multiple mentions in our daily blessings and prayers, peace features prominently, among others, in the Priestly Blessing, and the vision of peace and prosperity in the Land of Israel – וְנָתַתִּי שָׁלוֹם בָּאָרֶץ / יִשָּׂא ה פָּנָיו אֵלֶיךָ, וְיָשֵׂם לְךָ שָׁלוֹם.
There is a tension between peace in the visions of Isaiah, and peace as the best we can do today. On the one hand, our God is not the god of strength and power; God is the god of liberty and liberated slaves, who loved Patriarchs because of their goodness, not strength; who commands us to love the stranger because we know what it’s like to be strangers, teaching the dignity of difference.
On the other hand, in the utopian visions of Isaiah, the world governments melt down their weapons and disband their armies. Yet in a world of pacifists, one bully would rule the world.
Of course, peace is important as an abstract concept; but how do we get there practically?
Being weak and harmless is not good morality, and it doesn’t make you a good or peaceful person. It may seem noble to refuse to fight, but when the fight comes to you, then your family and community are vulnerable, and the Torah does authorize some forms of violence as just and necessary – עֵת לֶאֱהֹב וְעֵת לִשְׂנֹא, עֵת מִלְחָמָה וְעֵת שָׁלוֹם.
When you know you can bite, you’ll rarely have to.
It’s vital to be capable of aggression and only to exercise it when absolutely necessary. That doesn’t mean you go around bullying people; but it does mean that when someone threatens the people you care about, you can do something about it. Carl Jung called this integrating the shadow, which is poignantly about making peace with a darker part of yourself. It’s what Pirkei Avos tells us; if I don’t stand up for myself, what am I…?
Strength is essential; it’s arguably a prerequisite to the Jewish model of peace – ה’ עֹז לְעַמּוֹ יִתֵּן, ה’ יְבָרֵךְ אֶת עַמּוֹ בַשָּׁלוֹם.
R’ Shlomo Farhi explains that peace is more than a state of non-violence. Peace is a state mutual respect, and acceptance; which requires cultivating inner strength and courage to allow others what they need even if there’s a cost to us.
Ralph Waldo Emerson quipped that nobody can bring you peace but yourself. A legendary comedian once said that the only time you look in your neighbor’s bowl is to make sure that they have enough. When you feel secure, there is security. But that takes benevolence, confidence, and unshakeable strength.
We have a responsibility to regulate ourselves and free ourselves from looking at our neighbors with grudges, grievances, and jealousy. When other people’s success and achievements no longer threaten us, we can develop constructive relationships.
As the Ohr HaChaim puts it, the word for peace is related to the notion of wholesomeness and harmony – שָּׁלוֹם / שלמות – which evokes the concept of harmonious symbiosis.
Isaiah’s vision is not that states will be too meek and weak to defend themselves – a kind of negative peace with no violent conflict between or within states; it’s a vision of positive peace, where there is also equity, justice, and growth. With mutual respect and tolerance, we can resolve conflicts and struggle for justice non-violently.
But that dream for the world starts with you, and perhaps that’s the step that bridges the world of today with the ideal vision of tomorrow.
When our lives are in balanced harmony, it gradually expands to include our families, our communities, and ultimately everyone you meet; and maybe one day, the whole world. That’s what we pray for so many times a day.
As the Gemara says, there is no greater container of blessings than peace.