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Parashat Behar: Peacemaking and the Quest for Holiness

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Sometimes the thematic coincidence of a weekly Torah portion and an important new book is truly remarkable. So it is with the chapters of Leviticus that Jews will read in synagogue this coming Shabbat and From Enemy to Friend: Jewish Wisdom and the Search for Peace, written by an old and dear friend, Rabbi Amy Eilberg. Placing her reflections on "peace-building" in dialogue with the Bible, I am carrying forward a long-standing conversation with a beloved conversation partner of long standing about a text and a topic that are both dear to my heart.

The book of Leviticus could not be clearer on the point that extraordinary action is called for as part of the Israelite's calling to be "holy unto the Lord your God," particularly in God's holy Land. Every seven years, the Land of Israel must have its Sabbaths of rest from cultivation. Every seven-times-seven years, there must be a jubilee year in which Israelites shall neither reap nor sow. They shall "proclaim liberty [or 'release'] throughout the Land to all the inhabitants thereof," provide for return of all lands to their original owners, and -- perhaps the most difficult injunction of all -- "not wrong one another, but fear your God" (Leviticus 25:1-17). That final command recalls the very heart of the so-called "Holiness Code," where the Torah commands us not to bear a grudge or take vengeance, but instead "love your neighbor as yourself, for I am the Lord" (Lev. 19:18).

I understand God to be saying, in these crucial phrases of the Torah, that Israelites (and by extension all human beings) are presented with an extraordinary possibility. God is holy, and we -- thanks to being created in God's image, and connected to God through covenant, revelation, and experience -- can be holy as well. That opportunity imposes enormous responsibility. Holiness is not intrinsic. It lies in what we do, how we treat others every day, the kind of society we build and the kind of people we are.

The greatest virtue of Eilberg's book, to my mind, is that it reminds us yet again of a profound and difficult lesson: we cannot hope to make the world right unless we act to right ourselves. We have no chance of living without grudges or vengeance if we are afraid, unsatisfied with our lot, or always on the lookout for ways of gaining advantage over others. If we don't want to rely entirely on God, "Who makes peace in the heavens," to make peace on earth as well, but are ready to accept the responsibility of doing our part in that effort, then we had best heed Eilberg's warning that the work is hard and will not come as a matter of course. Particular habits of mind and behavior are required. "[The] inner work of peace-building" means nothing less than "to transform an enemy into a friend, to move from hatred to caring, from suspicion and fear, beyond tolerance, to embrace of the other."

The key biblical passage in the book is the command to love our neighbor as ourselves, and the most often-cited modern religious thinker in the volume is Martin Buber, famous for his emphasis on the "life of dialogue" and the relationship between "I and Thou." The personal experiences with peace-building that Eilberg recounts most often involve Muslims and Palestinians. She also offers cautionary tales of American Jewish communities torn asunder by heated disagreements over Israel. She warns the reader that "there may be moments when you notice emotion rising in you: anger, horror, even outrage . . . When you notice such reactions arising, I invite you to conduct your own experiment in compassionate listening" -- a technique of attention and self-restraint that Eilberg has learned to practice, and one that seems essential to the work of peace-building.

Eilberg -- like the Torah, I believe -- works hard to find a balance between a language of aspiration that tries to stretch readers beyond our normal ways of thinking and acting and ideals so out of reach for most of us that we feel comfortable in not taking her message to heart. It is one thing (hard enough!) to observe the Sabbath, and quite another to allow the land to "observe" its sabbatical years, the next of which will be this coming year. The regulations surrounding the jubilee have for good reason seemed daunting to commentators -- and Jews seeking to observe them -- for many centuries.

But I keep coming back to that simple command not to "wrong one another, but fear your God." I shall henceforth read it in light of Eilberg's recurrent question to us, when we turn away from dialogue: "what are you afraid of?" There is, of course, a lot to be afraid of in this world. Some enemies cannot be won over, and if we do not resist them -- at times with force -- the result will not be peace or friendship but increased violence and injustice. Some arguments are worth having, and even losing friends over. The caution that Eilberg adds, I think, is this: don't ever give yourself carte blanche to avoid the hard work of listening and peace-building. Always have the honesty to ask if you are avoiding it, not because it is too dangerous but because it is too difficult. That practice has Leviticus firmly on its side.