Finding Peace in Troubled Times

How can we achieve peace in a world so full of violence and hatred? We start in our own homes and communities. We disagree with respect.

Once again we find ourselves reeling in the face of another horrendous terror. And it was not just the terrible attack on the airport and subway in Brussels. Yesterday an ISIS suicide bomber detonated an explosion killing 26 at a soccer game in Iraq. Last week there was a bombing in a café in Turkey. We often pay more attention to attacks in Europe, but the daily images of people suffering at the wanton cruelty of terrorism appear almost daily and our hearts ache and our despair grows. The attack in Brussels hit close to home – our beloved teacher Esti BenDavid said the Gomel blessing today – a blessing said when one escapes danger or survives a serious illness. Her son was in the Brussels airport at the time of the attack on his way to Israel. Thank God he was not injured – but his presence there reminds us how interconnected our world is. Our prayers go out to the families that have lost loved ones and to those injured in the hope of a full and speedy recovery. Today our hearts are with the people in every city on any continent around the world wherever terror has raised its ugly head. Every life is precious and every attack tears at our heart.

I believe that our first response to the pain in the world is to feel. The story we will read next week tells of the High Priest Aaron suffering the loss of two of his sons. What does he do? Va’yidom Aharon. And Aaron was silent. Sometimes the pain of loss is so many emotions – we might be angry, sad, overwhelmed, numb – the only response is silence. We need room for our own honest reactions – and then we need to listen to each other as we share our responses.

It is the response to hatred with more hatred that the religious community must step forward to condemn.

And yet the world we live in provides anything but space for our reaction and emotions. Especially in America at election time, people rush to blame and to issue pronouncements of fear and anger that misdirect blame. The day after the Brussels attack, there was a story on the news of the Muslim girl in Contra Costa County who was taunted and called “terrorist” because she wears a hijab. It is the response to hatred with more hatred that the religious community must step forward to condemn.

At times like this, I turn to wise teachers like Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, I turn to our tradition, and I turn to friends like Imam Abdullah Antepli.

not-in-gods-nameRabbi Sacks reminds us how people of every religion often invoke God’s name to justify violence against the innocent. His book, Not in God’s Name, explains this phenomenon and teaches that it is the job of religious leaders to teach that such acts are not what God wants. To kill in the name of God is sacrilege and idolatry. ISIS, which has claimed responsibility for these attacks, may justify its actions in religious Islamic ideology, but it is not the true face of Islam. Just as violence done in the name of Judaism by extremists is not the true face of Judaism, we have to be very aware and teach that most Muslims do not embrace such an ideology. The Bay Area Islamic Networks Group, with whom we work with, will be creating programs so that we can know each other better. They issued this statement: “Crimes such as these flagrantly violate the norms of civilized society and the core teachings of all major world religions.” Let’s be careful to distinguish between ISIS and its extremist hatred, and Islam and its millions of practitioners who reject such hatred.

While ISIS must be opposed through strength and resolve, the real struggle for peace is a war of ideas. In a world where the fundamentalist terrorist seeks to give meaning through turning the world into a dualist us versus them, Rabbi Sacks argues we need to strengthen those who teach that the message of religion is to see the divinity in fellow human, to seek justice, to treat the most vulnerable members of society with compassion, to pursue peace.

Our shared religious message is one that tries to bring peace. At a time when peace feels so distant, we hold onto the fundamental religious message: peace and reconciliation as God’s will. Religion at its best calls on us to see the face of God in one another.

This message of pursuing peace also rings true from our Torah portion, parshat Tzav. At face value, this portion has nothing to do with peace. In fact, it is confusing and horrific to read about animals being killed in order to worship God. But as Emily and Annie taught, this portion can only be understood in historic context as the way people in the past may have worshipped God and subsequent Jewish tradition challenged the act of animal sacrifice arguing that God wants heart – kindness, prayer, study come to replace animal sacrifice. It is that context of evolution and a tradition rooted in transformative interpretation that allows us to find meaning in the ancient details. When we ask, “What circumstances caused people to bring sacrifices, and how do we respond to those same circumstances now?” that allows the text’s messages to come alive.

One of the offerings brought was the zevach shelamim. The Hebrew word shelamim means “peace, wholeness, tranquility, completeness.” Why a peace offering? Because peace is the highest of values. Then go deeper: When you look at the list of offerings – the shelamim is always the final one mentioned. Why? Because peace is always the ultimate, culminating value. It is also true of the prayerbook – each section ends with a prayer for peace – for the prayerbook seeks to leave us with peace as that to which we strive.

How can we achieve peace in a world so full of violence and hatred? We start in our own homes and communities. We don’t allow the poisonous rhetoric that has crept into our society to have space to grow in our community. We disagree with respect. We seek to understand the points of views of others with whom we disagree. We stand in the shoes of one another.

When it comes to our Muslim neighbors, we extend a hand in peace and friendship. As religious institutions we preach and live a theology of seeing God’s face in the face of another. And we have friends and allies in this journey in the Muslim community. As we come to know each other barriers fall and connections build. That is the peace I believe these times call for.

Imam Abdullah
Imam Abdullah

I spoke to Imam Abdullah this week in preparation for his visit to our community in a couple weeks. He shared that every time there is a terrorist act, his community experiences acts and words of hate, and that my support at these moments eases the loneliness and fear. He shared that his work of helping Muslim leaders understand Judaism by studying at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Israel is having a positive affect where those Muslim leaders live. Jews and Muslims talking together, getting to know each other, learning together – confronting the difficult texts of both religions and seeing how tradition has interpreted and understood those texts – has created relationships that not only dispel false myths, but result in shared activism. He taught that he is urging Muslim communities to observe Holocaust Memorial Day and was one of the Muslim leaders to travel to Auschwitz to understand Jews and Judaism in a deeper way. Come and meet him in two weeks.

When we stand together with Muslims and Christians and others of faith to affirm the dignity of one another, we begin to create seeds of peace in times of despair. We can be the beginning of change that allows our prayers of peace to be realized. It will take courage and hard work. It requires pausing to mourn when any precious life is lost. It requires finding our voice in the face of forces that feel overwhelming. But ours is the legacy of a tradition that embraces peace as the ultimate value. Rodef shalom – pursue peace!

Let’s hold fast to the words of Jeremiah in this week’s haftarah:

אֲנִי יְהוָה, עֹשֶׂה חֶסֶד מִשְׁפָּט וּצְדָקָה בָּאָרֶץAni Adonai Oseh Chesed, Mishpat u’tzedakah ba’aretz
I the Lord Create Deeds of kindness, justice and righteousness in the Land.כִּי-בְאֵלֶּה חָפַצְתִּיKi ba’eleh chafatz’ti
For in these do I delight.
Jeremiah 9:23

Let’s be partners in creating a world in which God will delight.