Bechukotai 5768 — Peace and Justice
I wrote this d’var Torah for Rabbis for Human Rights, who first published it…
If you walk in my statutes, and keep my commandments, and do them; Then I will give you rain in due season, and the land shall yield her produce, and the trees of the field shall yield their fruit. And your threshing shall last to the time of vintage, and the vintage shall last to the sowing time; and you shall eat your bread to the full, and dwell in your land safely. And I will give peace in the land, and you shall lie down, and none shall make you afraid; … Leviticus 26:3-6.
אִם-בְּחֻקּתַי תֵּלֵכוּ וְאֶת-מִצְוֹתַי תִּשְׁמְרוּ וַעֲשִיתֶם אתָם: וְנָתַתִּי גִשְׁמֵיכֶם בְּעִתָּם וְנָתְנָה הָאָרֶץ יְבוּלָהּ וְעֵץ הַשָּׂדֶה יִתֵּן פִּרְיוֹ: וְהִשִּׂיג לָכֶם דַּיִשׁ אֶת-בָּצִיר וּבָצִיר יַשִּׂיג אֶת-זָרַע וַאֲכַלְתֶּם לַחְמְכֶם לָשבַע וִישַׁבְתֶּם לָבֶטַח בְּאַרְצְכֶם: וְנָתַתִּי שָׁלוֹם בָּאָרֶץ וּשְׁכַבְתֶּם וְאֵין מַחֲרִיד
In sixty years, Israel has made some truly remarkable financial accomplishments. We have gone from being a backward third world country relying on exporting oranges and collecting handouts from overseas to being a high-tech powerhouse.
We have hundreds of high tech companies starting every year, and we not only have millionaires – what the heck a million dollars is not what it used to be – but we have seven BILLIONAIRES – and that’s measured in US dollars, not in shekels.
One often hears claims that one of Israel’s problems is an uneven distribution of wealth – we have seven billionaires, but we also have a third of our children living in poverty. As sad as that statistic sounds, the truth is that wealth distribution in Israel is really not that far out of kilter. Wealth is more evenly distributed in Israel than in the United States. If you exclude those who are “voluntarily poor” – mostly haredi (ultra-Orthodox) families with twelve children and a father who studies all day instead of going to work – our income distribution would look even better.
But for all of our financial success, money has not been able to buy the one thing that really matters most: peace.
In this week’s Torah portion, Bechukotai, after promising us material prosperity, God promises us peace. Noticing this juxtaposition, Rashi comments: ונתתי שלום. שמא תאמרו הרי מאכל הרי משתה, אם אין שלום אין כלום “And I will give peace” – a caution – “lest you say ‘here’s food, here’s drink’” for if you don’t have peace, you don’t have anything.”
Pretty strong stuff: you can have material wealth, but if you don’t have peace, you have nothing.
There are a couple of different ways we can understand this teaching. On the one hand, you could say that if you don’t have peace, there is a danger that you will lose your material goods to violence. Or you can read it as teaching us that if you have material wealth but don’t have peace, you won’t really be able to enjoy it, because you’ll be so nervous worrying about protecting yourself and your stuff.
Rashi’s comment on the blessing of peace continues: תלמוד לומר אחר כל זאת ונתתי שלום בארץ, מכאן שהשלום שקול כנגד הכל, וכן הוא אומר עושה שלום ובורא את הכל “this is to teach that after all this, and I will give peace in the land, from here we learn that peace is equal to everything else – as it is written, “[God] makes peace and creates everything.”
And how do we accomplish that peace?
In Pirkei Avot, Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel makes a connection between peace, justice and truth, saying that the world rests on these three things. But since peace is equal to everything else, justice and truth are really the things that support peace.
How can you have peace without justice? And how can you have justice without truth?
Before you can arrive at justice, you have to be able to clearly see the truth. And the truth is, every conflict has two sides. Every conflict has different perspectives. Our Independence Day is the Palestinians’ “Nakba” or “Catastrophe Day.” Which version is true? It all depends on who you ask. These are truths that can live in uncomfortable tension with each other – both true for different groups of people. As the physicist Niels Bohr said, “The opposite of a correct statement is a false statement. But the opposite of a profound truth may well be another profound truth.”
If one side refuses to hear the truths of the other side, it will be impossible to arrive at an outcome that both parties will recognize as just.
Rabbis for Human Rights makes a real effort to hear the different sides. For example, a few weeks ago our executive director, Rabbi Arik Ascherman, and a few board members heard both from Palestinians who claim their homes are being damaged by archeological work being conducted by the non-profit organization Elad, and we heard from representatives of Elad who claim they are trying to be good neighbors. In the search for truth and justice, you can’t refuse to listen to the stories one side or the other. This often puts us as an organization in a lonely situation: to other organizations that work on behalf of the human rights of Palestinians we are suspect because we are Zionists, and believe that the Jews have a right to a homeland in Israel; to other Zionist groups we are suspect because we care about the human rights of Palestinians.
Justice means more than just hearing what the other side has to say – justice has to become reality. Saying “I hear you” but doing nothing to change the situation does not lead to justice, or to peace.
But justice alone does not automatically lead to peace. In fact, the Talmud questions whether strict justice leads to peace at all. In Sanhedrin 6b we read “[the verse teaches] ‘Execute the judgment of truth and peace in your gates (Zechariah 8:16).’ But surely where there is strict justice there is no peace, and where there is peace, there is no strict justice!”
Why would the Talmud say where there is strict justice there is no peace? Some commentators say it is because when you have strict justice, one person wins and another loses, and the one who loses is inevitably going to be angry about it. No one likes to lose, or to be found guilty.
But in the context of finding peace on a national level, it is even more complicated. How do you determine what is just when there are valid claims on both sides? Who gets to decide? In the dispute over land in the West Bank, what a settler believes would be a just decision may be very different than what a Palestinian believes would be a just decision. And both would cite God as being on their side.
So what is our way to peace? The Talmud’s observation about peace and justice continues: “But what is that kind of justice with which peace abides? We must say: Arbitration.” Arbitration – which is to say compromise.
In an ideal world, it would be better if there were no “separation barrier” between Israel and Palestinians – in an ideal world, it would not be needed. But if there is going to be such a barrier, we must at a minimum make the just compromise that the route takes into account humanitarian considerations of Palestinians. In an ideal world, it would be better if there were no occupation of the West Bank – but if there is going to be an occupation, while we are working for peace, it must be administered as humanely as possible with the occupiers sensitive to the human rights of the occupied.
To some people, it might seem like the work of Rabbis for Human Rights is often seeking “half a loaf.” Why fight the route of the separation barrier instead of fighting the separation barrier? Why fight administrative home demolitions in the occupied territories instead of fighting the occupation?
I would suggest it is because “strict justice” is both unattainable, and not likely to lead to the fulfillment of the greatest human right of all – peace. As the Talmud wisely points out, the justice that abides with peace is the justice of arbitration and compromise.
And as Rashi noted in his commentary on this week’s parsha, without peace, you have nothing.