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Interfaith Call for Peace, Fasting & Prayer - Rabbi Sheldon Lewis' Reflection

On Sunday, October 7, 2007, a small group gathered in the sanctuary of the First United Methodist Church for an interfaith call to peace, prayer and fasting. We were gifted with wonderful music from a ensemble of violin, cello and oboe, and thoughtful and inspirational reflections from Rabbi Sheldon Lewis, Honorably Retired; Tasneem Fatima, Muslim Community Association; and Nichola Torbett, Network for Spiritual Progressives. Click below for the text of the words from Rabbi Lewis. Ms. Torbett's reflection can be found in the following story, and the words from Ms. Fatima's talk will be added soon.

Oct. 7-8, 2007
Rabbi Sheldon Lewis

In the cycle of readings of Torah in synagogues around the world, we have just begun anew with the story of creation. Central to that narrative is the birth of the first human beings about whom it is written.

Let us make the human being (Adam) in our image

Reflecting on these words, Rabbi Aaron Samuel Tamaret, an extraordinary early 20th Century sage, writes:

When the Holy One, blessed be He, stated at the time of Creation, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness,” He thereby placed in man’s hands the power to create worlds as He had done. And if it be true, as our sages affirm, that man affects even the higher spheres, then how much more must he affect this very earth itself. Certainly his own situation is shaped by his own hand. The effect of society upon him is but the harvest of those deeds previously sown by him in this world. Good actions set good waves moving in the air, and a man performing good acts soon purifies the air which surrounds him. Evil actions poison the atmosphere, and a man’s evil acts pollute the air until finally he himself breathes the poisonous vapors, and such actions flow from all the actions of a man, whether physical or mental. Were the eye able to perceive it, we should see that when a man raises his fist against another man, the air surrounding him is filled with waving fists; that when a man raises a foot to kick another man, the air registers feet raised high and aimed at him; that when a man casts a designing eye upon another man, the atmosphere reveals designing eyes aimed at him; and that when a man stands inert as clay while another’s blood is shed, the air surrounding him is filled with congealed lumps awaiting the hour when his own blood will be shed. (Aaron Samuel Tamaret, “Liberty”, published in Musar Hatorah v’Hayahadut)

Rabbi Tamaret teaches that just as God created this world, those formed in the Divine image are vested with great power, surely not on the scale of God, but substantial power to fashion worlds. With our actions, with even our words and our thoughts, we give form to the world around us. That world can be wondrous, nourishing, safe, peaceful; and that world can be ugly, dangerous, and violent. Every precious human being has that power as an individual; collectively, that power is geometrically magnified. We are always recreating our world, every day, every moment.

What kind of world is envisioned by our faith traditions and Judaism in particular? Today’s event is sponsored by Multi-faith Voices For Peace & Justice, a group I greatly admire. Please forgive me if I play with that title a bit to make a point. If we switch words, we arrive at Multi-voice faiths. I am persuaded that each of our sacred faith traditions contains more than one voice, voices in fact that are frequently contradictory. I know it best of all within Judaism. There is a Torah of peacemaking with justice, a Torah of compassion toward every other, a Torah of forgiveness, a Torah of reconciliation. But there is also a Torah of war, a Torah of suspicion of the other, a Torah of anger, and a Torah of revenge. These voices have been recorded for four millennia. They vie for the attention of every Jew today, and surely all such voices have won adherents. The key question for me is making a decision what voice I really want to heed, to teach to my children, and to act out in the way I live my life.

I desperately want to hear the voice of the peacemaker, and I have spent much of my life in recent years trying to sift through the literatures of Jewish history in search of that voice. I have located such immense riches, and in my few minutes remaining, I want to share with you some of the treasures I have found. I have chosen a text from Torah about oxen and donkeys!

When you encounter your enemy’s ox or ass wandering, you must take it back to him.
When you see the ass of your enemy lying under its burden and would refrain from raising it, you must nevertheless raise it with him. (Exodus 23:4-5)

Rabbi Alexandri said: “Two donkey drivers who hated each other were walking along the road. The donkey of one of them lay down. His fellow passed by and saw that he was lying down under his burden. He said: ‘Does it not say in the Torah that “when you see the donkey of your enemy…you must nevertheless raise it with him.” What did he do? He turned back and loaded (the animal) and accompanied (his enemy). He began to converse with him. He loosened (the straps) a little from one side, lifted (it) from the other side and strapped on that side until he had reloaded (the donkey) with him. The result was that they made peace with each other. The other said: ‘Didn’t I think that he was my enemy? See how he had mercy on me when he saw me and my donkey in dire straits’.

The consequence was that they entered an inn and ate and drank together. They developed affection for each other. (Tanhuma, Mishpatim, 1)

In a later passage in the book of Deuteronomy the Torah again addresses the subject of animals gone astray:

If you see your brother’s ox or sheep gone astray, do not ignore it; you must take it back to your brother. (Deuteronomy 22:1)

If you see your brother’s ox or sheep gone astray..Here (in Deuteronomy) it is said: “your brother’s ox”, and in parashat “Mishpatim” (in Exodus), it is said “your enemy’s ox” in order to teach you that it is not sufficient to return the lost object but one must also put aside the hatred. This Mitzvah must become the occasion to uproot the hatred from your heart and to stimulate the love of a brother and the feelings of brotherhood. “You must take it back to your brother.”--When you return the lost object to him, he will become like your brother. (Rabbenu Bachya on Deuteronomy 22:1)
In these passages, the rabbis emphatically teach that one must never allow hatred to fester in one’s heart, seeking instead some occasion to make a new beginning and to transform an enemy into a friend.

Yet beyond oxen and donkeys, the rabbis speak with particular passion about the special place that seeking peace holds in the hierarchy of Jewish values:

Hezekiah said: Great is peace, for in connection with all other precepts in the Torah it is written, “If you see the ass of your enemy lying under its burden...”(Exodus 23:5), “When you encounter your enemy’s ox or ass wandering...”(Ibid. 4), “If, along the road, you chance upon a bird’s nest...” (Deuteronomy 22:6), “When you build a new house...” (Ibid. 8), (implying) if a precept comes to your hand, you are bound to perform it. But what is written in connection with peace? “Seek peace and pursue it.” (Psalms 34:15) (meaning) seek it in your place and follow it to another place. (Perek HaShalom 59b in Derech Eretz Zuta in Minor Tractates of Talmud)

The sages, may their memory be a blessing, said: “Seek it (peace) for your loved one and pursue it with your enemy. Seek it in your place and pursue it in other places. Seek it with your body and pursue it with your material resources. Seek it for your own benefit and pursue it for the benefit of others. Seek it today and pursue it tomorrow. With reference to ‘seek it tomorrow’, it teaches that one should not despair, thinking that one cannot make peace, but rather one should pursue peace today and also tomorrow and on the day afterwards until one reaches it. (Chafetz Chayim, Shmirat Halashon, Shaar Haz’chirah, Chapter 17)

Peacemaking stands alone at the pinnacle of values. Without peace, no other blessing is secure. With peace, no other precious gift is beyond our reach.

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