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.

As Moshe prepares for the end of his life, he tells the Jewish people to have no fear, and that God would look after them:

ה אֱלֹהֶיךָ הוּא עֹבֵר לְפָנֶיךָ, הוּא-יַשְׁמִיד אֶת-הַגּוֹיִם הָאֵלֶּה – “Hashem, your God; He will cross you over, He will destroy your enemies before you.” (31:3)

Instead of saying “God will cross you over and destroy your enemies,” Moshe adds extra emphasis that “God, He” will do it – הוּא עֹבֵר לְפָנֶיךָ, הוּא-יַשְׁמִיד אֶת-הַגּוֹיִם.

What was Moshe adding?

The Ohr HaChaim explains that Moshe was speaking to people who were afraid to lose Moshe.

Moshe had rescued the Jewish People numerous times, even when they were at fault. After instigating the Golden Calf, a plague struck them that only Moshe’s prayer could stop. Who would save them from peril if not Moshe?

The few wars and skirmishes they’d fought were all won under Moshe’s command. Facing a campaign of conquest in Israel, who would lead them into battle?

Moshe recognized that people idolized him, figuratively and perhaps literally, and told them that they were misplacing their trust. It had never been about him. They had mistaken the agent for the principal.

It had been God all along.

Looking over the theatre of getting angry and sending a plague; God had wanted Moshe to pray; had planted the idea; taught him the words, and fundamentally, wants to forgive. That’s what God’s essence is, and Moshe evoked imagery of the same word used to describe God’s characteristic of forgiveness – עובר על פשע / הוּא עֹבֵר לְפָנֶיךָ.

It had never been Moshe winning the wars – God had been orchestrating events and would continue – הוּא-יַשְׁמִיד אֶת-הַגּוֹיִם הָאֵלֶּה.

The Seforno explains quite simply, Moshe was telling his audience that the medium was not the message, and that that he was just a vehicle for God’s plans.

R’ Tzadok HaCohen notes how Moshe’s entire speech is addressed to “you” – the second person singular – because the message echoes through the ages.

Each of us has equal and direct access to God. We do not believe in intermediaries, however special they are.

Teachers and guides are critically important influences – עֲשֵׂה לְךָ רַב.

But outsourcing our faculties to a proxy is something else entirely.

Throughout the sections detailing the construction and establishment of the Mishkan, the Torah repeatedly uses the phrase “כַּאֲשֶׁר צִוָּה ה’ אֶת מֹשֶׁה” or variants. It would seem obvious that the construction of the Mishkan would take place as instructed – it’s not as though competing architects and interior designers had to pitch different ideas and blueprints. Why emphasise that they did what they were supposed to?

There is a prevalent view that holds that the Mishkan was only required to fix the problems created at the Golden Calf. The Beis Halevi explains that what caused the sin was the people’s own ideas about how best to serve Hashem, and this led them to the conclusion that they drew about how to serve God. By accepting God’s total authority, and marginalizing their own beliefs in order to complete the Mishkan, the Torah sees fit to emphasise “כַּאֲשֶׁר צִוָּה ה’ אֶת מֹשֶׁה” – that was the actual point of getting them to build it.

The Ohr HaChayim elaborates that there were three components in forming the Golden Calf which required rectification – the idea of not believing in God or Moshe wholeheartedly; the speech to Ahron to find alternative forms of spirituality; and the donation and subsequent casting of material into the form it took. But when describing the Mishkan’s construction, the Torah merely states that they did as commanded – along with other such verbs referring to action. Where are the reparations for thought and speech reflected?

The chief architect and foreman of the Mishkan was Bezalel – to whom Chazal ascribe the ability to see the components of all things to the smallest possible detail. He truly understood the plans of the Mishkan, and they made sense to him. But he did not perform the tasks because he understood them. He did it because Hashem told Moshe. This counteracted their heretical intentions and thoughts.

The significance of Parshas Shekalim is that every individual had to make a personal contribution to the Mishkan fund. In so doing, they bought a stake in the project, undoing their donations and pressure to form the Golden Calf.

To initiate the actual construction, Moshe was not simply told to have the Mishkan built:

וַיְדַבֵּר ה’ אֶל מֹשֶׁה לֵּאמֹר. בְּיוֹם הַחֹדֶשׁ הָרִאשׁוֹן בְּאֶחָד לַחֹדֶשׁ תָּקִים אֶת מִשְׁכַּן אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד – Hashem said to Moshe, to say: “On the day of the first month, on the first of the month, you shall set up the Mishkan of the Tent of Meeting…” (40:1-2)

Moshe had to explicitly say to them to to build it. They had to be told precisely what to do! This counteracted their clamouring for alternative forms of spirituality.