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Shoftim 5783        August 19, 2023

Rabbi Randall J. Konigsburg

Shabbat Shalom

This week’s Parsha is about judges. I have given sermons over the past weeks about the issues with judges in the United States and the issues with judges that are being played out in Israel. There really isn’t any reason for me to do the obvious thing and summarize it all with the words of Parshat Shoftim.

But Rabbi Eli Kaunfer, from Yeshivat Hadar in New York City, focused on a different part of the parsha that I also think is important. He notes that the Torah here instructs the People of Israel, when they are about to go to war with a foreign city, they should first send a delegation asking for a peace treaty. Before our people were ready to fight, they should give up the element of surprise and “call out to the city for peace.”

In our world today, nations fight first and ask for peace later. Sometimes we sue for peace when we are winning. Sometimes nations ask for peace before they lose. Sometimes nations ask for peace when they are exhausted, and just can’t fight anymore. It often seems that it is generals first and diplomats later. The Torah teaches us that we need to reverse this approach. First, the diplomats should try and work out differences peacefully. Only later should the soldiers go out to war.

The midrash notes that this is something that Moses actually taught God! In Bamidbar Rabbah we find the following passage: “When the Holy Blessed One said [to Moshe] to wage war with Sihon, even though [Sihon] didn’t want to wage war with [Israel], as it is said, “Get up, travel, and pass over the wadi Arnon, see, I give Sihon into your hand” (Deuteronomy 2:24) Moshe didn’t carry out that instruction.  Rather, it is what is written later, “I sent messengers [bearing words of peace]” (2:26). The Holy Blessed One said to him: I swear that I will cancel My words and establish your words, as it says: “when you approach a city to make war against it, call out to it in peace” (20:10). (Bemidbar Rabbah 19:33)

As far as the Torah is concerned, peace is the primary approach to the way we need to look at our world. We are not to respond to other nations in anger, but to first try to make peace, and only in the event of failure of peace talks, then we should go to war. And the Torah implies here that the peace talks need to be serious talks. This is not a case of “My way or the highway” but to work out differences in a way that will lead to peace and not more war.

But Rabbi Kaunfer also sees a different lesson about peace in our tradition. In the prayer at the end of our Amidah, Sim Shalom, we ask God to grant us peace. This is not a prayer about world peace, this is a very personal prayer about finding peace in our lives. Shalom Bayit, peace in the home, is such an important value in Judaism that the Torah teaches us that even truth must make way for peace. In the stories of Genesis, we find Sarah laughing that she should have a child since Abraham is so old. But when Abraham asks God why Sarah is laughing, God replies that Sarah thinks that SHE is too old to have children. Even God bends the truth for the sake of peace in the home. I think we can all relate to this. Who here has not been asked by a spouse, “Do I look fat in this?”

 Rabbi Kaunfer teaches: I am drawn to this understanding of the concept of peace in the Sim Shalom blessing as well. Sometimes I find myself yearning for world peace. But sometimes I feel the need to ask for peace in my own home. It might seem counterintuitive to value peace in the home on a similar level to peace in the world. But knowing that this value of peace at home is so critical—even to the point of defeating the value of truth—helps me appreciate the ways God does not think only about world events at such an impersonal scale, but also values the peace that each of us may find in our individual lives.”

Sometimes even the smallest act of making peace can save the world from great sorrow. On Tisha b’Av, we learn the story of two men with similar names, Kamza and Bar Kamza. One was a man’s best friend, the other his worst enemy. That man had a party and through a mix-up the enemy was invited to the party and not the friend. Begging to be spared embarrassment, Bar Kamza offered to pay for not only what he might eat but he offered to pay for the entire party. The man would have none of it and threw out his enemy, leaving him embarrassed in the street. That man, seeing nobody cared about his feelings, went to Rome, and told Caesar that the Jews were rebelling. Eventually this led to the war between the Jews and the Romans that ended with the destruction of the Temple. A little peace can go a long way.

At this time of year, making peace should be at the forefront of our minds. One year is ending and another is about to begin. We have started, just yesterday, the last month of the Jewish Year, Elul; and we blow the shofar every morning to remind ourselves that our Days of Judgement are near. What is it that we will take into the new year and what is it that we want to leave behind? Our parsha this week teaches us that we will need to be at peace and to make peace if we are to enter the new year in the proper way.

As human beings, we know that it is very easy to get angry with someone else. It is easy to get angry with someone in our family that does not show proper respect for who we are. It is easy to get angry with a friend or neighbor over some slight that gets blown all out of proportion. In our day and age, it is easy to get angry with people who belong to a different political party, or who have different positions on cultural issues or to be angry with anyone who disagrees with any particular position we might hold. We are living in partisan times, and we are bombarded with politics of anger.

Peace is much harder. When it comes to making peace, the first thing we need to do is be quiet and listen. To really listen. To listen and to hear what another person is saying. We can’t listen if we think of the other person, whether family, friend or someone who is just different, if we can’t see that they too are human beings who may have a different point of view than we might have. Peace is not about right and wrong, the first step to peace is to see the other’s point of view. To really see it. To stand in their shoes and see the world from that person’s point of view. To make peace we need to see that viewpoint and acknowledge that it is real to that person.

To make peace, next we will have to make room for their position in our world view. We have to admit that we are not always right, and that the other person is not always wrong. Truth can be very slippery sometimes and finding truth can also be hard. When it comes to family, sometimes we have to bend the truth a bit to prevent more anger. We all know what buttons to push to make someone angry, but we also know what we need to say to help that person defuse their anger. That is a critical part of making peace. To take the anger out of the discussion and to get down to real feelings and real issues. To admit our own mistakes and to help them discover their mistakes. To speak our truth and to help them discover what parts of the discussion are true.

We must not take our fights with us into the new year. We need to resolve any differences with others we may have and find our way to peace. We need to stop sharing our anger with others who can’t help us resolve the issues and who only agree with our anger. We need to address the issues and our anger and make peace with those with whom we are angry. As one diplomat put it, “You don’t make peace with your friends, you make peace with your enemies.”

Pirke Avot teaches “One who is difficult to provoke and easy to appease, that person is a Tzaddik. One who is easy to provoke and difficult to appease, that person is wicked.” (6:13) What the Sages are teaching is that we should have a peaceful disposition as much as possible. And when we are provoked, to forgive easily. That is what we need to do at this time of year. To let the anger go and be ready to make peace. In all my years as a Rabbi, I can’t tell you how many times I have had people who have had feuds for dozens of years, finally make up with their enemy and then tell me, “I wish I had done this sooner!”

Anyone can get angry, but to carry that anger more than a few days is to hold a grudge. Grudges are not allowed in Jewish Law. So let the anger go. We need to stop stewing on how we have been wronged and start to figure out how to resolve the issue at hand. Rambam teaches that we have to give it at least three tries to make peace before the issues are no longer our problem but the intransience of the other person. But we do have to make the effort.

Like Rabbi Kaunfer, I too would like to see world peace. It would be a great blessing if, as the prophet says, “nations would beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks.” What a joy it would be to live in a world where everyone was at peace with others. But while there is little I can do about world peace, I can promote peace here in my corner of the world. So, I am pleading with everyone here. Use these weeks, as the holidays draw near, to let our anger go. Find those who made us angry, or those who we made angry, and sit and talk and have a discussion and put the anger to rest, once and for all. The reason for the feud really does not matter anymore. In the grand scheme of life and in the vastness of the universe, our problems with each other are really insignificant. We can call other people all kinds of unkind names, but to find the real sweetness of life, we have to reach out to others to make peace. Only when we have resolved our anger, can we aspire to be hard to provoke and easy to appease. Only then can we aspire to live a righteous life of kindness and joy.

I know that this is not easy. I know it is not easy to take the first step toward peace. God knows the pride and ego that has to be cast aside to make peace with others. But there are great rewards for making peace, and not the least of them is having a peaceful new year.

May God give us the courage, the strength, and the wisdom we will need to bring peace into our lives, and may we forgive even as we ask others for their forgiveness. May God grant us peace, in our world as well as in our homes as we say … Amen and Shabbat Shalom.


Sat, June 22 2024 16 Sivan 5784