The Roots of Our Ideals

Shofetim By :  Andrew Shugerman Posted On Sep 3, 2011 / 5771 | Midrash: Between the Lines | Conservative Judaism

דברים רבה ה:טו

ד״א וקראת אליה לשלום ראה כמה הוא כחו של שלום בוא וראה ב״ו אם יש לו שונא הוא מבקש ומחזר מה לעשות לו מהו עושה לו הולך ומכבד לאדם גדול ממנו שיעשה לאותו שונא רעה אבל הקב״ה אינו כן אלא כל עובדי כוכבים מכעיסין אותו והן ישנים וכל הנפשות עולות אצלו מנין שנאמר (איוב יב) אשר בידו נפש כל חי ובבקר הוא מחזיר לכל אחד ואחד נשמתו

ד״א ב״ו אם יעשה לחברו רעה אינה זזה מלבו לעולם אבל הקב״ה אינו כן אלא היו ישראל במצרים והיו המצרים משעבדין אותם בטיט ובלבנים לאחר כל הרעות שעשו לישראל חס הכתוב עליהן ואמר (דברים כ״ג) לא תתעב מצרי כי גר היית בארצו אלא רדפו אחר השלום שנא׳ (תהלים לד) בקש שלום ורדפהו

Deuteronomy Rabbah 5:15

Another explanation: “[When you approach a town to attack it,] you shall offer it terms of peace” (Deut. 20:10). See how great the power of peace is! Come and see: If one has an enemy, one continually seeks to harm him somehow. What does one do? One goes and entices a person stronger than oneself to harm that enemy. With the Blessed Holy One, however, it is not so; rather, all the nations of the world anger Him, yet when they sleep their souls go up to Him [for safekeeping]. From where [do we learn this]? As it is said, “In His hand is every living soul, [and the breath of all humankind]” (Job 12:10). In the morning He restores to everyone his soul . . .

Another explanation: If a man injures another, his fellow never forgets it; but not so God. Israel was in Egypt, and the Egyptians oppressed them with mud and bricks. After all the evil they had done to Israel, Scripture had pity upon them and decreed, “. . . You shall not abhor an Egyptian, for you were a stranger in his land” (Deut. 23:8). Instead, chase after peace, as it is said, “. . . seek peace and pursue it” (Ps. 34:15).

“Peacetime” may seem today like a distant memory, yet ancient texts like the midrash above show how far we have advanced from the conflicts of biblical times. If our Sages could express that insight in their generation (nearly two millennia ago and just centuries after Israel conquered Canaan), it behooves us to appreciate how our Torah has inspired us and our non-Jewish allies to pursue peace in this global age.

The midrashic explanations above illustrate how rabbinic tradition identifies the source for our highest humanitarian ideals: God’s protection for even His enemies when they are defenseless, the Torah’s command that we treat our Egyptian adversaries humanely specifically because they oppressed us. Not only are these concepts counterintuitive, but they demonstrate the spiritual wisdom of supporting peace-building efforts in the face of real and potential conflict.

During this week and last, Chancellor Eisen has posted on his “Conservative Judaism: A Community Conversation” blog a two-part essay entitled “Jews and Others.” In it he presents our people’s covenant with God as a modern framework for mediating between particularism and universalism, between our loyalty to other Jews and our allegiances with non-Jews. Dr. Eisen presents deeper study of Judaism and other faiths as a necessary parallel to our social action pursuits in partnership with non-Jewish groups. His words, like those of our ancient Sages, remind me that our Torah begins not with Abraham but with Adam, that our unique understanding of humanity’s creation in God’s image requires us to engage all of our neighbors in the work of repairing and perfecting the world in which we live.