[Better late than never! Two more submissions -- B'reishit and Ha'azinu -- will complete the set, as well as a concluding column that will relate to V'zot Hab'rakhah.]
(Avot 6:6) There are 48 ways to acquire Torah, including...ma'amido al hashalom, causing someone to take a peaceful stand...
(Deuteronomy 2:26) va'eshlach mal'akhim...divrei shalom leimor; I sent emissaries (to the king blocking our passage) to speak words of peace.
In these turbulent times, religion in general is on the defensive, and on no subject more than attitudes toward conflict and violence. Judaism is no different in that regard. Whether reacting to circumstances in the Middle East or responding to acts of terror perpetrated on Jews, by Jews or near Jews, a host of citations from Torah and Talmud to Martin Buber are hoisted with regularity to show that ours is a religion of peace.
Indeed, my own immersion in the intersection of Jewish activism and social activism came because someone caused me to take a peaceful stand. I was a college student during the Vietnam War. Aside from my considered opposition to the war, I was also terrified of the prospect of being drafted and sent to fight. I was urged on by fellow students and (genuine) outside agitators on my college campus to engage in civil disobedience to oppose the continuation of the war. Similarly, many of my active Jewish friends articulated reasons why it was incumbent on a faithful Jew to take a stand for peace. I began to identify myself as a pacifist.
Thirty years later, some of you read that last paragraph with a sense of nostalgia, and others felt familiar bile rise in your throat. Set aside those reactions or you will miss the point.
My parents and I never really argued about the war or my anti-war activities, but my father was far less certain of his position than I was of mine. One day I found a magazine that had been left open to an article on Jews and pacifism. The author, Rabbi Maurice Lamm, made an intriguing point: the pacifist holds peace as an absolute, but Judaism holds that only God is absolute. I was very taken with that representation, and started to learn more about war and peace and Judaism.
Without going into detail, the bottom line is this: war is never the preferred option, but sometimes it is permissible and other times it is necessary. Yet, even when war is waged and a city is besieged, there must be an escape route for the combatants – and I understand that to mean both literally and figuratively.
When the Israelites sought passage through Cheshbon (and offered to pay for any resources they used), King Sichon refused. Emissaries of peace sought resolution of the stalemate to no avail. Only when he demonstrated his belligerence was the battle engaged; the Israelites were victorious.
Sichon had nothing to gain by his refusal; until the start of the conflict, the Israelites had no designs on his land and no quarrel with his kingship. Apparently, he also had no one urging conciliation upon him; no one caused him to take a peaceful stand. A peaceful request escalated into a show of force and then into war. A human toll became inevitable.
If pacifism is a form of disloyalty to God, then so is self-righteous belligerence. More times than we might like to admit, we are contrary in nature not as much on principle as for the sake of ego. I can refuse, and therefore I refuse. The result, inevitably, is unnecessary conflict. And if the disagreement turns violent, as it did with Sichon, then the image of God is diminished with injury and death to combatants and victims.
The peaceful stand is not always the conciliatory stand. Peace is not for patsies. The peaceful stand is the one that, even when besieging an opponent, leaves an escape from conflict. It enables both parties to emerge with dignity and (at least the potential for) mutual respect. The peaceful stand, however, is not the preferred option when blood is boiling and hackles are raised high.
So there must be advocates for peace. There must be trusted friends and advisors who can speak to the heart of one side or the other and lift up the options for the ways of peaceful resolution of differences. And, obviously I hope, God must always be at the center of that urging.
Peace is not always possible, and conflict is not always inevitable. But taking a stand for peace is always preferable to advocating conflict. And being the voice of that preference for others is a means of acquiring Torah.
How can you be ma'amido al hashalom? There is conflict involving someone you care about – it is the human condition. Think through the conflict and what would make that person willing to resolve it in a manner that preserves the dignity of the parties involved. Articulate it in a way your friend of family member would hear; practice in front of a mirror how you would persuade the person to take a peaceful stand.
Now try it with the conflict to which you are a party.