D’var Torah: Loving and Pursuing Peace – and Loving Humankind
Pirkei Avot 1:12 teaches: “Hillel and Shammai received [the oral tradition] from them. Hillel used to say: be of the disciples of Aaron, loving peace and pursuing peace, loving mankind and drawing them close to the Torah”.
This is one of my favorite teachings of all time. It is short, but every word has meaning.
First, Hillel says to be like the students of Aaron. Why not just say, “be like Aaron”? One reason could be that trying to be as great as Aaron would seem too daunting to us. Who can be like Aaron? But students of Aaron, who are a nameless group – surely we can aspire to that.
Loving. Love is a word that isn’t associated too often with Jewish law. Yet love is used twice in this short teaching. We should love peace and we should love humanity. Perhaps it is easier to first learn to love a concept (peace) and then to learn to love everyone. On the other hand, loving peace isn’t so easy. I think sometimes we get a thrill out of conflict, or see it as a path to material gain. Another thought: it is impossible to love people unless you have peace. Peace is the first step to love. Of course, “shalom” comes from the root word for “complete” or “whole.” What is peace if it isn’t about feeling complete or whole?
The final point: in the parallel construction of the teaching, the first action word is “pursue” and the second is to “draw near.” These words are somewhat contradictory to one another. We need to pursue peace. Rodef (pursue) is a very strong word that can mean “to chase.” When discussing self defense, the rabbis say you can kill a pursuing murderer; the rabbis use the same word, rodef. The pursuit of peace takes tremendous effort and energy. We cannot be deterred by feelings of anger or hatred. We cannot succumb to lashon hara (an evil tongue; speech that damages another) about someone else that leads to conflict. The pursuit of peace takes great focus because it is so difficult to attain.
While the pursuit of peace is always important, to really win people over we must draw them close. Welcoming a person into your world, your community and your friendship circle is central to Judaism. The only way the pursuit of “shalom” (completeness) can be successful is if we recognize the divine spark in humanity, love everyone, and include them in our lives. Act by act and person by person, this is how we emulate the students of Aaron, and work to bring true “shalom” to our world. Shabbat Shalom.