On the drive back from Mother’s day brunch my brother has accused me of lying about my car’s gas mileage. A discussion about fuel reimbursement started just before getting into the car and erupted shortly there after. Insisting my claims are either inaccurate, or worse, fabricated, my frustration builds as he cuts me off mid sentence reemphasizing his account.
Finally my mom demands a stop to it. “Its my day, I don’t want to hear it anymore.”
There is a tense silence. On one hand I want to fulfill my mom’s wishes. But on the more tempting hand, I want to correct every misinformed point my brother has gotten to voice. It’s burning me up.
Some might call this peace. A tentative calm that many nations of the world “at peace” probably feel about one another. Chances are, this type of peace is the only peace the world is likely to see. But this is not at all what Judaism envisions with its concept of Shalom.
Parshas Pinchas follows the disturbing act of violent zealotism from the end of last week’s Torah portion, Balak. When the rebellious prince from the tribe of Shimon publicly engages in an act of forbidden sexual relations with a Midian princess, Pinchas slaughters both of them for all to see. For this, God awards Pinchas the honor of becoming a priest and is bestowed the covenant of peace.
I’m not going to go into why or how this act should be accepted let alone praised. If you want some clarity on that you can read my previous post. I will say however that the rabbis of the Talmud argue against what Pinchas did. Instead, I’d like to explore what peace/Shalom is really about.
Peace Vs Whole
When most of us imagine peace, we tend to think of “no war” or individuals “playing nice”. But clearly from the experience with my brother, to simply stop the conversation didn’t solve anything. My feelings of being misrepresented continued to fester as I’m sure what my brother was feeling was stewing in him as well. Eventually these emotions might dissipate as we refocus on more important things. But they didn’t. Weeks later he and I would have a much longer phone conversation rehashing the same points. That’s because this mother-mandated-peace only masked the problem.
The word shalom שָׁלוֹם, comes from the shoresh (root) of שלם shalem which means whole or completion. Where one might think peace is something delicate, passive, that we only lose when it is disturbed, the Jewish idea insists that peace is something to be built and pursued. עושה שלום – Oseh shalom, make peace.
The icon of paradise is a Corona on the beach as the couple relaxes on vacation. Serene, refreshing, and no worries. But the Jewish idea of paradise, the Garden of Eden, had a key difference from the beer commercial.
God took the man and placed him in the Garden of Eden to work it and preserve it. (Bereishis 2:15)
Within all of us is the need to accomplish, to connect, and to be good. Any screenwriter worth the overpriced Final Draft software they’re writing on knows a good villain believes they are doing good. So when my brother makes an accusation of dishonesty, it challenges my worth as a human being and I have a need to correct that. But beyond personal squabbles, sitting around getting a tan can create a lack of shalom in a person.
Don’t get me wrong, there’s no problem with taking a vacation. But within us is a sensitivity to the lack of wholeness in the world. And also within us is the desire to rid the world of that disunity. That thing we know is wrong. But we allow ourselves to get distracted from it, rationalize why it doesn’t deserve our attention, or have deluded ourselves into believing we can’t do anything about it.
However that desire to fix the world doesn’t just go away. If not properly channeled it can get redirected in absurd ways. How many times have you heard someone complain about a waiter as if it was the worst injustice since the Jim Crow laws? Now how many of those people who have that raging indignation is really involved in something meaningful? When a person invests in accomplishing real good, they’re not going to be bothered that the waiter forgot the butter.
We’re in a period of the calendar known as the three weeks which commemorates the worst tragedies of the Jewish people. The rabbis say that the cause of the current exile was something known as sinas chinam or baseless hatred. That the Jews hated each other for absurd and meaningless reasons. So to combat that, some rabbis say that the solution is ahavas chinam, or baseless love. And though we are commanded to love each and every Jew, I actually heard of a more practical solution.
If your refrigerator’s compressor is defective and it freezes all your juice and eggs, should you go buy an oven that burns your food? Of course not. You need a compressor that puts out the correct degree of cold. So too, the solution for baseless hatred isn’t baseless love, but justified hatred. The fact of the matter is that when we see evil and injustice in the world, we should have an emotional reaction like Pinchas did to Zimri.
Just to be clear, I’m not condoning violence or fanaticism in any form. But there are a lot of people who wouldn’t have a problem going back in time and killing Adolf Hitler. Why? Because there we have perfect clarity about that situation. Evil today isn’t something you can pierce with a sword or a staff. It persists in things like disinformation, oppressive attitudes, unjust systems. It’s those attributes that we must attack with a passion, the way Martin Luther King was a zealot against racism and segregation. When we labor to fix those evils, we rise above our pettiness. Upon understanding the concerns of others and arguing for truth opposed to being right, that’s when you can unleash all the vitriol you were planning on using for that American Airlines customer service agent. You might not get your flyer miles refunded for Corona beach, but perhaps you’ll end up with an inner peace that is far more lasting.