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The Pursuit of Peace (Rosh Hashanah Day Two – 09/20/20)

Rabbi Neil Schuman

The Pursuit of Peace
An elderly lady was well-known for her faith and for her boldness in talking about it. She would stand on her front porch and shout, “Baruch Hashem! (Praise God)”
Next door to her lived an atheist who would get so angry at her proclamations he would shout, “There ain’t no God!!”
Hard times set in on the elderly lady, and she prayed for God to send her some assistance. She stood on her porch and shouted, “Baruch Hashem, Another day begins, But G-d, I am having a hard time. I really could use some food. Please, God, send me some food.”
The next morning the lady went out on her porch and noted a large bag of groceries and shouted, “BARUCH HASHEM.”
The neighbor jumped from behind a bush and said, “Aha! I told you there was no God. I bought those groceries; God didn’t.”
The lady started jumping up and down and clapping her hands and said, “Baruch Hashem! You not only sent me groceries, but You made the atheist pay for them!”
We could say this joke symbolizes the divide between believers and non-believers. But I easily could have replaced the characters with a Democrat and a Republican.
“Baruch Hashem! You not only sent me groceries, but You made the Republican or the Democrat pay for them!”
But then, some people would not have found the joke so funny.
I’ve spoken about the political divide among us before, but I’ve recently seen it get even worse.
My tipping point was when I heard that Bari Weiss resigned from her lucrative and powerful position as editor of the Opinion section at the NY Times. I sensed something was deeply wrong.
I quote her resignation letter, dated July 14.
“Dear A.G.,
It is with sadness that I write to tell you that I am resigning from The New York Times.
I joined the paper with gratitude and optimism three years ago. I was hired with the goal of bringing in voices that would not otherwise appear in your pages: first-time writers, centrists, conservatives, and others who would not naturally think of The Times as their home.
The reason for this effort was clear: (she’s talking about why they hired her, a centrist) The paper’s failure to anticipate the outcome of the 2016 election meant that it didn’t have a firm grasp of the country it covers. The priority in Opinion was to help redress that critical shortcoming.
But the lessons that ought to have followed the election—lessons about the importance of understanding other Americans, the necessity of resisting tribalism, and the centrality of the free exchange of ideas to a democratic society—have not been learned.
I was always taught that journalists were charged with writing the first rough draft of history. Now, history itself is one more ephemeral thing molded to fit the needs of a predetermined narrative.”
Her resignation typifies the divide in our country. We only want to hear our side of the story; we’re not open to the other side.
Friendships have been breaking up.
I know of two rabbis, cousins, who, for years, used to learn together by Facetime every Friday morning. They’ve now stopped due to political differences.
I heard of lifelong friends who no longer speak, including two who met when they were seven years old. Eighty-three years later, they’d still talk to each other daily. But recently, at 90 years old, they’ve discontinued their friendship because of political differences.
I know people that aren’t attending minyan because they don’t want to hear political jabs at a prayer service.
I ask you, is the leadership in Washington the problem, or are they a symptom of the divide in our country?
As Weiss noted, even the NY Times in 2016 didn’t have a firm grasp of the country it covered. Our country has a vast political, moral, religious, and economic divide. “One nation, under God,” is no longer indivisible; it is quite divided.
At the Democratic National Convention in August, the Democrats touted Biden as a figure who will unite our country.
It reminds me of the little boy who asked his father, “Daddy, do all fairy tales begin with, ‘Once upon a time?’” The father replied, “Many of them do, but not all.  Some start with, ‘If I get elected, I promise….’”
Biden may become a uniting figure for Democrats and even those voters who are still undecided. Yet, I highly doubt he’ll be able to assuage and embrace many of the Trump supporters.
And if Trump gets re-elected, it will be four more years similar to the last four. Trump is loyal to his followers and would not betray his support base by changing his positions.
So no matter who wins, we need a strategy for creating some unity.
Shalom, peace, is a central tenet of Judaism. Every Shabbat, we recite the “Prayer for Peace.” The thrice-daily Amidah and our Kaddish prayers conclude with a request for peace. At the dawn of the new year, our services are permeated with prayers for Jewish and global unity and harmony.
We ask God to bless us with peace, but peace won’t just descend upon us. We need to be the peacemakers. We need to make the efforts that are worthy of God’s blessing.
St. Francis of Assisi got it right when he prayed, “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.” We need to be the instruments.
I believe one way we can do this is by getting together with those friends that we politically disagree with for a socially distanced outing.
When I was a rabbi in Youngstown, I discovered that all the rabbis in town played instruments. I suggested that we form a band. We called our group “Shalom Rav,” a play on words, meaning both Great Peace and Hello Rabbi. We performed at each other’s synagogue on Purim, Chanukah, and Yom HaAtztmaut (Israeli Independence Day). How’d we do it? Back then, I was a fervent Orthodox zealot who strongly disagreed with Conservative and Reform theology; you wouldn’t have recognized me! However, we all wanted to benefit the Jewish community. As long as we stayed off the topic of religion and theology, we were okay. Strange as it seems, the four rabbis who became good friends never discussed Judaism with each other (maybe just a tiny bit).
If four disparate rabbis can get along, can’t Democrats and Republicans get together for a cooking demonstration, a sports event, a card game?
Yes, it seems as though everything has become politicized nowadays, even mask-wearing, science, and which athletes and artists we follow, but can we restrain ourselves and make the efforts to talk about something neutral for two and a half hours?
In Psalms (Chapter 34) it says,
 מִי הָאִישׁ הֶחָפֵץ חַיִּים אֹהֵב יָמִים לִרְאוֹת טוֹב
נְצֹר לְשׁוֹנְךָ מֵרָע וּשְׂפָתֶיךָ מִדַּבֵּר מִרְמָה
Who is the person who desires life, who longs for days to see good? Keep your tongue from evil and your lips from speaking deceit.
The rabbis used to say these words referred to gossip and libel; now, I interpret them to be careful with voicing our political opinions.
Another idea for promoting peace is to go out of the way to help someone of differing beliefs.
There are two mitzvot on this topic in Exodus 23:
ד) כִּי תִפְגַּע שׁוֹר אֹיִבְךָ אוֹ חֲמֹרוֹ תֹּעֶה הָשֵׁב תְּשִׁיבֶנּוּ לוֹ
If you see your enemy’s ox or donkey lost on the road, you must bring it back to him.
ה) כִּי תִרְאֶה חֲמוֹר שׂנַאֲךָ רֹבֵץ תַּחַת מַשָּׂאוֹ וְחָדַלְתָּ מֵעֲזֹב לוֹ עָזֹב תַּעֲזֹב עִמּוֹ
If you see the donkey of your adversary crushed by the weight of its burden, would you refrain from helping him, you should definitely assist him!
How does the Torah instruct us to deal with our opponents? By challenging us to help them. By being kind and overcoming our nature, we end up building bridges with those of a different mindset.
I just starting watching the Netflix series “Fauda” about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It creates so much stress within me that I have trouble sleeping every time I watch it. The brilliance in this series is how it humanizes each side.
Beneath the political and religious differences that perpetuate the cycles of violence, human beings all share the same desires of love, family, and peace.
Part of the problem in our country now is that we dehumanize the other side. That’s why we can mock our opponents so easily or why some can even shoot bullets at protestors.
Exceptional times call for extraordinary measures. These times call for powerful acts of restraint, kindness, and seeing our shared humanity in others.
Here, I quoted a poem (“Landlord to Such a Multitude” by Sue Swartz, We Who Desire: Poems and Torah Riffs, Ben Yehudah Press 2016, but I do not have permission to reprint) to illustrate why Shalom is an essential element in Judaism: we are an exceptionally diverse people and religion. We can only keep ourselves together through the pursuit of peace.
November 3rd is right around the corner, but harmony is a long way off.
We all need a plan, a vision to be more peaceful and respectful.
“Oseh Shalom Bimromav, May the One who creates peace in the Heavens,” guide us to be instruments of peace in the upcoming year. Help us guard our tongues, renew friendships and help even those with whom we disagree. Then we’ll merit to have peace for us, for Israel and the whole world. Amen. Shana Tova

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