Bringing peace into our lives

Chief Rabbi Dr Warren Goldstein

...Hillel says: Be among the disciples of Aaron, loving peace and pursuing peace...

(Pirkei Avot 1:12)

...הִלֵּל אוֹמֵר: הֱוֵי מִתַּלְמִידָיו שֶׁל אַהֲרֹן, אוֹהֵב שָׁלוֹם וְרוֹדֵף שָׁלוֹם...

(אבות א:יב)

Hillel says: Be among the disciples of Aaron,

The best leaders and teachers understand that people learn not only from listening to what they say, but also from observing how they live and what they do. This mishna recommends that we learn from the example of Aaron, who joined his brother Moses in leading the Jewish people out of Egypt, to Mount Sinai, and through the desert for forty years. Aaron’s kindness and compassion made him more beloved than his brother. To be Aaron’s disciple means that we strive to emulate his behaviour and live according to the values he gave expression to every day.

At the heart of Aaron’s vision are three core Torah principles: peace, unity and generosity of spirit. Aaron brought peace to many people by healing rifts between couples, family members and friends. Despite his high office, he personally intervened in an array of conflicts to restore love and harmony, and often ran between parties himself to encourage forgiveness. As head of the Sanctuary, Aaron promoted national unity by emphasising the shared Torah values and vision of the twelve tribes. Aaron’s generosity of spirit was renowned, and also helped change the course of history.

When G-d told him that Moses would be the main leader of the Jewish People, Aaron did not act wounded, envious or resentful. Instead, he expressed joy for his younger brother. It was only upon hearing that Aaron supported his leadership that Moses felt comfortable accepting the position. Aaron understood that in a world of Divine abundance, the blessings of one do not diminish the fortune of another. Aaron’s fundamental goodness not only enabled Moses’s success, but also made himself a timeless role model for the Jewish people.

loving peace and pursuing peace,

When we pursue peace, we do not simply believe in an abstract concept, but actively work to bring it about. It is easy to love the idea of peace; it is far harder to make it a reality. This mishna emphasizes the importance of doing both. Of course we should cherish the idea of peace, but we should also ask ourselves what we are willing to sacrifice to make it happen. Are we ready to apologise to someone we may have hurt? Are we prepared to cede ground to heal a rift? Because peace often demands compromise, pursuing it requires real strength of character and an ability to set aside our ego.

If we are to actively seek peace, we must also work, like Aaron, to resolve the problems that rise up between other people. Conflicts are natural and peace is not, so healing rifts and bringing people together requires real effort. But because harmony is essential to any society, we must be prepared to work for it.

Why is conflict an inevitable part of our lives? The answer has its roots in our G-d-given individuality. Because we are all created in G-d’s image, we each have a Divine soul that reflects His greatness, including His strength, kindness and compassion. But just as G-d is a King – indeed, the “King of all kings” – so too do we each have a touch of royalty within us. Discord is a natural consequence of one sovereign clashing against another. Peace demands compromise, but it is hard to get kings and queens to set aside their own needs, fears and insecurities in deference to others.

We must overcome our sense of self-importance, to pursue peace, otherwise, our conflicts threaten to destroy our families, friendships and communities, and can unravel our social fabric and even lead to unimaginable bloodshed. Clashes have the power to consume us, so we must seek to avoid them at every turn. Like Aaron, we should devote ourselves to setting aside our ego and pursuing peace.

Peace, the central theme of this mishna, is a more profound concept than an absence of conflict. One of G-d’s names is Shalom – peace. The physical universe is made up of disparate parts that pull us in different directions: light and darkness; cold and warmth; summer and winter. G-d is the One who holds everything together. As the unifying force of all of existence, He alone gives it coherence and harmony. He is called Shalom because He has the power to create peace among the varied elements of the universe. Peace in this mishna not only refers to the harmony that can exist among people and between us and G-d, but also describes the Divine unity of every part of Creation.

Like the universe, people are made up of many conflicting forces physical and emotional, intellectual and spiritual, ethical and financial, universal and particular that often pull against each other. What holds us together? The answer is the Torah, G-d’s blueprint for life, which offers guidance for finding harmony among the varied dimensions of ourselves. The Torah is sometimes called a “shira” – “a song” because music involves the harmonious union of various notes, keys and instruments. We achieve inner peace when we find the music in our complicated lives. For guidance, we must look to the Torah.

(Extracted from the commentary the Chief Rabbi is currently writing on Pirkei Avot, the first volume of which will hopefully be published later this year.)

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