Where Peace Begins

Here we are in 5770. Here we are on Yom Kippur, davening together in shul, confronting our existential fears and hopes for a new year. Today in our prayers, we ask God for all kinds of things: forgiveness, atonement, blessings, sustenance, health. In our deepest prayers, we long for Shalom, for peace: peace in our homes and families, peace among our people, peace in the Land of Israel from our enemies, peace in the whole world. If there’s any one yearning that each and every one brings to synagogue today, that all of us share, it’s the yearning for Shalom. So why is Shalom, indeed, seemingly the most elusive commodity in the world? If you look in the Torah, it would seem that violence and conflict are essential parts of our human nature. The book of Genesis is filled with stories of conflict between brothers. The conflicts begin with Cain and Abel, the two sons of Adam and Eve. They both brought offerings to God. God liked Abel’s offering, but not Cain’s offering. So what did Cain do? He killed Abel! God was furious at Cain, and said ‘Your brother’s bloods cry out to me from the ground!’. And then God cursed Cain, saying: ‘And now you shall be cursed, and a ceaseless wanderer on earth’ Cain was overcome with guilt and panic, and he too cried out: ‘Gadol Avoni Min’so!’ My sin is too much to bear!..and now anyone who meets me may kill me!” …

Amazing, isn’t it? Brothers killing brothers. The beginning of all war and bloodshed began with two brothers, over our petty jealousies and the pathetic desire to get on the good side of life at the expense of another. Cain, of course, stands for each and every one of us, his descendants. There’s a dark place within each of our psyches that cries out ‘Gadol Avoni min’so! My sin is too much to bear! There’s a dark part in each of us that sees ourselves as lonely and ceaseless wanderers on earth, always existentially alone and afraid for our lives, never truly at peace, threatened by a world that we fear we can’t fully trust, feeling irrationally guilty and ever on the defensive. And that darkness seems to perpetuate more violence, and more violence, and the cycle goes on from generation to generation.

So is there really any hope for us to break the chain of violence that lives in our very souls? Indeed, there seems to be: Later in the book of Genesis, there is another story of two brothers, Jacob and Esau: One night, Jacob finds himself all alone on the banks of the River Yavok. In the darkness, a mysterious ‘man’—a kind of dark angel--suddenly appears and immediately, Jacob violently launches into a fierce struggle, a fierce wrestling match with this man. They fight and struggle all night long, right up to the approach of dawn. ‘Let me go, for the dawn is approaching,’ the man says. ‘I will not let you go until you bless me,’ Jacob says back. ‘What is your name,’ the man asks. ‘Jacob.’ ‘Your name shall no longer be called Jacob,’ the man replies, ‘but Yisrael, for you have striven with beings Divine and human, and have prevailed.’ . . .And Jacob named the place Peniel, which means the ‘Face of God,’ because Jacob realized that he encountered the face of God that night, and yet he lived!

A strange and cryptic story! What does it mean? We know that Jacob was a man with a lot of guilt on his conscience that night. Jacob had stolen the blessing of the firstborn from his brother Esau years before. And now Esau was on his way to meet up with Jacob again the next morning. Was Esau, a wild and brutish man, going to kill Jacob and his family? Did Jacob deserve to be killed because he was a thief and a cheat?...

The power of this story is its mystery. Its images of darkness, existential terror, and wild struggle are there to sink deep into our souls as we read them. This story leads us to the places of darkness and struggle that rage within each of us—that very same dark place that leads to violence. On that night on the banks of the River Yavok, Jacob went into that violent place within his soul. In that all-night struggle, he wasn’t just Jacob anymore. In his own guilt and fear surrounding his stealing the blessing from his brother Esau, Jacob became Cain struggling with Abel once again. “I won’t let you go unless you bless me!” Jacob cries to the shadowy figure, and in that outcry, he is completing Cain’s outcry: Gadol Avoni min’so! My sin is too much to bear: forgive me, Abel! Forgive me, Esau! Just bless me, God, accept me as I am, give me peace—Shalom-- despite my guilt!...

On the High Holy Days, we seek forgiveness because we can’t seem to escape Cain’s existential dread and guilt. The brilliance of this day is that today, each of us becomes Cain. We come to know that all the violence in the world begins with us. And there is an incredible message in this journey today back to our deepest fears and guilts: when we have the courage to embrace all struggles within our own hearts and souls, then paradoxically, the struggle itself transforms into peace. The only way to find peace, to heal the Mark of Cain on our soul, as I taught on Rosh HaShanah, is not to turn away but to go bravely straight into the deepest, darkest struggles of life.

On that dark night by the River Yavok, Jacob finally faced the whole Truth of his life: Yes, he stole the blessing, and tricked his own father and brother. Yes, he is guilty of wrongdoing. Yes, he is, like all of us, the descendant of Cain. But, like Cain before him, all he wanted was God’s blessing when it’s all said and done. The deepest yearning of his soul was only for love and for goodness and for life! And so the shadowy figure blessed him. His name was no longer Jacob, which means ‘heel-grabber,’ or ‘supplanter’ or ‘cheater.’ Now it was Yisrael—‘The One who Found God Because He was Willing to Face the Struggle.’

Our brothers bloods are still crying out to us: from the Middle East, from Darfur, and from violence right from here in DC and around the world. If we really long for an end to violence, are we willing to find these conflicts in our very own hearts as much as we find them ‘out there’ in the world? Our rabbis tell us something amazing: the Hebrew word Shalom, peace, is actually the name of God. Our longing for peace is our longing for God! If we really want peace, then we have to commit to creating a place for Shalom in our lives, body and soul—b’chol levavcha, uvchal nafshecha, uv’chal me’odecha—with all our hearts, souls, and might. If we’re ready, like Jacob, to cease as lonely wanderers in a world that threatens to kill us and our loved ones, then we have to be willing to change our very own name in the world. We have to be willing to look at each and every relationship, each and every moment, with the eyes of Shalom, of peace.

In our day and age, we’re a little confused about Shalom, peace. We think that Peace is the absence of struggle and conflict. But our ancient sages were clearer on this: Shalom means all of it. It means ‘hello’ and ‘goodbye.’ Shalom is a perfect circle: beginnings and endings, light and dark, good and bad. Peace doesn’t begin when the guns stop firing. Peace isn’t an effect of ceasefires alone. Peace is an attitude, an intention, a state of being in the midst of all conditions—when life is calm, and when life is full of conflicts and contradictions! In fact, our sages teach us that the most important place of all to seek Shalom is right in the midst of conflict itself!...

When the great Talmudic sage, Resh Lakish, died, his closest friend and study-partner, the equally great Rabbi Yohanan, was naturally despondent. On literally hundreds of pages of the Talmud, arguments between the two rabbis are recorded. So in order to bring peace to Rabbi Yochanan, many of the brightest students of the day came to Rabbi Yochanan, and he taught them a lesson on Torah. When he was finished, all the students praised Rabbi Yochanan with lavish praises, and told him ‘How brilliant you are, Rabbi Yochanan! How right you are, Rabbi Yochanan!’ And did this help Rabbi Yochanan feel more at peace? No! To this, Rabbi Yochanan cried out even more despondently: “Bring me back Resh Lakish!”[i] You see, Rabbi Yochanan wasn’t satisfied with the students because they agreed with him! What was so special to Rabbi Yochanan was that Resh Lakish challenged him.

The students couldn’t understand that the thing that made these sages great was that they welcomed the struggle from their adversaries. Each was the other’s angel with whom he could wrestle, who could make them face even the darkest places of their souls, and therefore find blessing, and ultimately inner peace!

There’s a famous Zen story about Zen master Hakuin, who lived centuries ago in a small fishing town in Japan. A beautiful young woman lived near him. One day, the young woman’s parents discovered that she was pregnant. Her parents were enraged by this dishonor. They demanded to know the father, but she refused to tell. Finally, to protect her lover, she lied and told them that the father was none other than Zen master Hakuin! Filled with rage, the parents went to Hakuin and said ‘we heard you’re responsible for getting our daughter pregnant!’ ‘Is that so?’ was all Zen master Hakuin said in response. Of course, his reputation as a great master was totally destroyed. When people passed him and said ‘you’re a despicable man,’ all he said in response was ‘Is that so?’ When the baby was born, the parents brought the child to Hakuin and said, ‘Here. You’re the father, you take care of this child.’ “Is that so?” was Hakuin’s only response. Still, for a whole year, Hakuin lovingly cared for this child, tending to all the baby’s needs. After a year, the young woman could no longer bear her guilt. She finally admitted to her parents that the real father was a young man who worked in the fishmarket. The girl’s parents came back to Hakuin begging his forgiveness and to get the child back again. Without batting an eyelash, Hakuin gave the child back to the family, and all he said was ‘Is that so?’…

As Jews, we hear this story and we think, what’s wrong with this guy? I’ll tell you one thing: if someone came to me with a baby and accused me of being the illicit father, my response would be “Ummm…No….!” I bring this story today because Zen stories, like many stories from the Torah and Midrash and Hasidic stories, are not meant to be taken literally, but metaphorically—they’re meant to shed light on our own inner world as we react to them and put ourselves in the place of the characters. So we must ask ourselves, what is this Zen master teaching us about ourselves? When the parents came to him accusing him of fathering an illicit child, what would go through your mind in that instant: “How dare you accuse me of such a thing?! Who the heck do you think you are to insult my dignity in this way?!” But instead, what did the Zen master do: he asked ‘Is that so?’. That question is not a question for the girl’s parents, nor was it a question for the town’s people who hurled insults at him. It’s an inward-turning question that we must ask ourselves! Hakuin asked himself: Is that so? Is that true? In what ways am I, indeed, ultimately connected to that girl’s, or to anyone’s recklessness? A baby is now in my care. Is it so that I am, indeed, not to play the role of ‘father’ when no one else will care for this precious life? Granted, this story really pushes things to the extreme, but it gets us to pause and to consider life differently than the ways that we’re normally conditioned to react. Whenever life thrusts a challenge, a problem, a stumbling block, an adversary, even an enemy in our face, we can ask: Is that so? Could that be True? What happens when we turn that question inward in moments when we feel attacked by someone in life?

If someone says to you, ‘You’re a liar.’ What’s our immediate, knee-jerk reaction: ‘How dare you call me a liar! I’m not a liar’ When we lash out in defense like that, then we’re being Cain all over again! Cain’s ‘How dare you!’ lash-out was so intense, he killed his brother over that reaction. So what happens if we find a way to take a deep breath, go inside, and ask ourselves, ‘Is that so?’ Could he or she be right? Can we struggle with our inner Cain, can we struggle with our knee-jerk defensive reaction, and be still long enough to listen and ask ourselves the very tough questions that our adversaries pose to us? What happens? In that timeless instant of going inside, we can search all the dark places in ourselves we would rather not acknowledge. We can wrestle with that angel within. We can search to see if there is any truth at all to the idea that we were were a liar! And then, instead of our knee-jerk defensive Mark-of-Cain reaction, we can say peacefully to the other person, ‘Tell me more.’ If they tell us something that we have found by embracing our struggle within, we can say back, ‘You know what, you’re right. I did lie.’ If, however, so meone calls us liar and we go inside and we find that it’s not true, then that doesn’t mean that then we can lash out and say ‘How dare you’! It just means that it’s time to keep wrestling—no matter how much it hurts--to keep searching for Truth, for common ground and self-understanding, until that conflict yields and transforms into blessing, and into Peace! We can say, “I’m so sorry. I didn’t lie, but I see how upset you are. Tell me your experience, let’s figure this out.”… When Jacob was wrestling with that angel, the angel actually wounded him right in the groin. It doesn’t get more personal than that! What’s amazing is that Jacob didn’t say—okay, that’s it: now I’m going to get you right back in your groin! Instead, even while in pain, he said, ‘I won’t let you go until you bless me!

Peace is only possible when we transform our relationship to our adversary and turn them from an enemy into a teacher, when we transform our own struggle from one directed at the other person, to one directed inwardly, to our own Shadows and to our own demons. If I reject the other person outright, I have lost an opportunity to meet someone who may very well be the kindest and most important teacher of my own Truth whom I have ever met!

The message I teach today is not a pacifist teaching. This is not a ‘turn-the-other-cheek’ sermon. My understanding of the Christian notion of ‘turn-the-other-cheek’ is that it takes martyrdom and passivity in the face of an attacker and raises it up to a holy level. ‘Turn-the-other-cheek’ takes the experience of being a victim and equates it with ‘bearing the sins’ of the other person, and in so doing, you become saintly. What I teach today is the opposite of ‘turn-the-other-cheek.’ When we welcome the struggle with the other person, we are the opposite of a victim: we can never be victimized again. We actively engage in conflict constructively and use that conflict as a tool, a gift to transform the dark places in our own souls, so that we become Yisrael, the embodiment of Peace right in the midst of the struggle.

How do we know when our work is done? The 23rd psalm said it best: ta’aroch lefanai shulchan neged tzorerai: Prepare a beautiful, peaceful banquet table before me right in the presence of my enemies! My cup runneth over with gratitude! Everyone in our life whom we perceive as an enemy—even those who may be out to kill us!—can point us back to ourselves, can point us to the path of peace in our own soul. What’s the stronger way to stand up to attackers in the world—when we’re full of rage and hate and on the defensive, or when we’re at peace? The answer is clear.

After that night of wrestling, when the sun rose over the River Yavok, Jacob—now Yisrael—went out to meet his dreaded brother in person after so many years. And lo and behold, Esau didn’t try to kill Jacob after all. The brothers embraced and wept. They met each other’s families, and they offered each other gifts. When Jacob offered Esau gifts, Esau demurred, “Yesh li rav, achi.” I have much already my brother. I don’t need such gifts. But Jacob pressed him: No, take it: To see your face is like seeing the face of God! “Kach na et birchati,” take my blessing, Jacob said …”ki chanani Elohim v’chi yesh li chol.” Because God has been gracious to me, and I have everything! Did you hear what Jacob offered Esau—birchati, blessing!? Take my blessing! It was Jacob who stole that blessing from his adversary all those years ago, but Jacob is now Yisrael. He is free! He’s at Peace! The great commentatary, the Sfat Emet explains, when Jacob said ‘Yesh li chol,” I have all, what he means is that he has found Shalom, true Peace in opening to all of it—the light and the darkness, the past guilts as well as the yearning and the love. He now knows he doesn’t need to lie or cheat or steal to have God’s blessing. He knows he is a blessing because he can look upon the face of his adversary, his enemy, and see nothing but the face of God!

Rabbi Simcha Bunam of Peshischa relays the following teaching: “Our sages taught: ‘Seek peace in your own place.’ You cannot find peace anywhere save in your own self. . .When a man has made peace within himself, he will be able to make peace in the whole world.”[ii] We live in a world beset by so much war and violence. It’s true: there are real enemies, real attacks, and a real necessity to defend ourselves. That’s the way of the world, for now, and it goes on as it must. But the greatest wisdom of our Torah teaches us that conflict and war are not the ultimate ways to end war in the world once and for all. The only path that will truly end war in Israel, in the Middle East, all around the world, begins nowhere other than in your very heart.

At the end of our prayers each day, we say the famous words: Oseh Shalom biM’romav, May God who makes peace in the Heavens above; Hu ya’aseh Shalom aleinu, May God bring peace upon us, v’al Kol Yisrael, and on all Israel, v’al Kol Yoshvei Teivel, on all human beings, v’imru, Amen. The Baal Shem Tov once taught that God’s greatest majesty is God’s humility, the highest place in the Heavens above is equal to the lowest, and simplest place here on Earth. R. Menachem Nachum of Chernobyl once taught: “Believe with complete faith that God surrounds and fills all worlds, God is both within and beyond them all.” When we say, “May God make peace biM’romav, in the heavens above—those majestic Heavens above are none other than the humblest place within our very own heart of hearts. When find peace in our own hearts, this IS how God sends peace from the heavens above! In the year 5770, may we indeed take this Torat Shalom, this Torah of Peace to heart. May we end all wars ‘right here,’ thereby bringing peace to us, to all Israel, and to all the world. Amen.



[i] Bava Metzia 84a

[ii] Buber, Late Masters, p. 264

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