The Mishna in Pirkei Avot calls on us to be like Aaron, the perfect peacemaker – a role model who not only loved peace, but went to great lengths to pursue it, making it a tangible part of the society in which he lived. Having a set of values that we hold dear is important. But more important is what we are prepared to sacrifice for those values. We can love peace, but are we prepared to apologise to someone we may have hurt in order to make peace, even if we feel we have done nothing wrong? Like Aaron, we should view peace not just as an abstract value, but as something we live – something we pursue – every day.
Peace is a foundational value in Judaism. And it’s a value that comes under the spotlight in the first half of this week’s double parsha – Chukat.
After decades wandering in the desert, the Jewish people are nearing the Promised Land. Approaching the Kingdom of Amorites, Moses sends a message of peace to the king, Sihon, and requests that he allow them to pass through his country – without entering its fields or vineyards, and without drinking water from its wells. Despite the peaceful overture, Sihon rejects the request and engages the Jewish people in battle.
Sometimes, pursuing peace doesn’t work. But from Moses’ example, we see that you have to at least try.
Also in Chukat, we read at length about one of the great icons of peace, Moses’ brother Aaron. Aharon HaKohen – Aaron the High Priest – was the absolute personification of peace. As the Mishna in Pirkei Avot teaches: “Be like the disciples of Aaron – loving peace and pursuing peace; loving people and drawing them close to the Torah.”
On what basis does Pirkei Avot describe him this way?
The Midrash helps us fill in the details. It tells us that when Aaron noticed two people involved in a quarrel, he would go to each of them – without the other’s knowledge – and report that the other was completely broken up by what had happened between them, was full of remorse, and, too embarrassed to come forward, had sent him – Aaron – to seek forgiveness. When next the two parties met, they would immediately be reconciled and would lovingly embrace.
In this way, Aaron healed rifts between friends, among families, even, in many cases, between husbands and wives.
Truth vs peace
We see clearly that Aaron went to extraordinary lengths to sow peace wherever there was discord between people, even taking licence with the truth. And there are examples of G-d, Himself, doing the same. The classic example is the episode of Abraham and Sarah conceiving a child. When G-d appeared to Sarah and told her that she was going to have a child, she reacted with surprise and incredulity, noting how old she and her husband were. But when G-d later recounted this dialogue to Abraham, He omitted part of Sarah’s response, recounting only that Sarah felt she was too old to conceive. It’s an extraordinary omission of the truth. And based on this episode, the Talmud derives the principle that one may, indeed, be “creative” with the truth for the sake of establishing (or maintaining) peace between two parties.
We see that Aaron had a solid precedent for being liberal with the truth. And it was likely this complete dedication to the cause of peace that made him such a beloved figure among the Jewish people of the time. Rashi points out that when Aaron died, the “entire House of Israel” (Kol bet Yisrael) wept for him for thirty days. He compares this with the verse that describes the aftermath of Moses’ death, which states simply that “Bnei Yisrael” wept for thirty days – implying that though Moses was mourned with the same intensity, it was not by everyone. Where Moses had his enemies, Aaron – who loved and pursued peace, repaired rifts, forged friendships – was universally cherished and universally mourned.
Loving peace and pursuing peace
The key to Aaron’s embodiment of the value of peace lies in the Mishna’s curious double phrasing – “loving peace and pursuing peace”. What’s the difference between “loving” and “pursuing”?
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. The Mishna emphasises 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.
That requires explanation. Why is conflict an inevitable part of our lives?
War and peace
The Maharal points out that conflict is part of the natural order – that society is prone to conflict, and that it is human nature for people to be in conflict with each other.
There are two reasons for this, he explains. Firstly, from a deep, spiritual perspective – ours is a world of fragmentation. Before G-d created our universe, there was only the perfect unity of His Presence. The mere act of creation, explains the Maharal, broke that original unity into a world of seemingly disparate forces and elements. We see that the concept of division is sown into the spiritual fabric of our world.
Secondly, explains the Maharal, conflict is rooted in the spirit of independence imbued in every human being. We are all created in the image of G-d – in the words of the Book of Bereishit, a “Tzelem Elokim”. That means we have a Divine soul, reflecting the greatness of G-d, Himself. And in the same way that G-d is a King – indeed, the “King of all kings” – so, too, is each and every one of us endowed not just with a G-d-like agency and independence, but also an aspect of royalty. We are all kings and queens. That spirit of independence and sense of royalty is also, for better or worse, literally a recipe for conflict. Conflict is the inevitable collision of our sovereign wills; it’s what happens when what I want and what I value clashes with what you want and what you value.
But the fact that conflict is natural doesn’t make it right. This goes for anything else that we seek to justify on the basis that it is “natural”. Conflict, say our sages, is a particularly evil and destructive force. It can destroy families, friendships and communities; it can unravel a society and, as we have seen throughout history, lead to catastrophic bloodshed. It can consume us. So although it is a natural phenomenon, we should work to subdue it at every turn. We should, like Aaron, seek to preserve peace at all costs.
It’s never easy. The fact that Pirkei Avot urges us to “pursue” peace tells us that peace is elusive. And that it can only be achieved when we are prepared to be proactive and invest real effort. Conflict is natural, peace isn’t, which means we need to do everything in our power to bring it about.
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. Clashes have the power to consume us, so we must seek to avoid them at every turn.
Like Aaron, we should devote ourselves to loving peace, and then pursuing peace. Relentlessly. With total passion and commitment.