B’Shalach: To Seek Not Victory, But Peace
“ In that hour (as the Sea of Reeds crashed down upon the Egyptians) the ministering angels wished to utter the song of praise before the Holy One, blessed be He, but He rebuked them, saying: My handiwork (the Egyptians) is drowning in the sea; would you utter song before me!”
Bavli Sanhedrin 39b
This week’s Torah portion contains one of the most powerful, and ethically challenging teachings in the Torah as the Hebrews cross the Sea of Reeds, to be followed by the Egyptians, who are drowned. Jews are taught not to take joy in the pain of others. This is even, and especially true, when it is the pain of our enemies. The Bible and Talmud are full of remonstrations against this practice, and yet, sometimes it is all too easy to succumb to our Yetzer Hara (Evil Inclination) and do just that.
I will always retain the sad memory of walking into a cigar lounge in 2014, and hearing many of the people there cheering as they were watching CNN. I thought it must be some sporting event I was unaware of, but instead found that they were watching the destruction of a terror tunnel into Israel, and the people were cheering at the death of the Palestinian terrorists. I looked at these people who were encouraging me to watch and celebrate this, and felt nothing but sadness.
Dozens of parents had just lost their children, siblings had lost their brothers, and children had lost their fathers, and we could be assured that they all would hate Israel forever. In my mind, there was nothing to celebrate. Remembering the teaching of how God chastised the angels when they started to celebrate the death of the Egyptians at the Sea of Reeds, I accepted that it was necessary to destroy the tunnels, but simply wrong to celebrate the pain of others. Pharaoh, those terrorists, and other adversaries are not our “enemies”. Rather they are adversaries that need to be defeated---but still respected as creations of God.
It is an important Jewish understanding that we don’t need to polarize our world even more by viewing the world through the lens of “enemies”, but instead respect all of Life strongly enough that we work to change those adversaries into friends, with the ever-present goal of ultimately achieving peace.
I have been reminded of this repeatedly over the last 2 years in watching people celebrate the pain of other Americans that they disagree with. It seems that almost daily we read about incidents of hate around this country, from both political sides. Instead of the healthy debate that is illustrated throughout the Talmud by our Sages, we see Conservatives and Liberals viewing the “other” not as wrong, but as evil. It seems that many Republicans view our new President and other elected officials as evil and are acting out of fear; and just as many Democrats are rejoicing and attempting to destroy conservatives… even attempting to silence conservative voices in media and beyond as if these conservatives are enemies at the core of their souls, and not simply Americans with different beliefs and politics. History has shown repeatedly that if we continue down this path of celebrating the pain of our adversary, it only leads to a mutual pain for everyone involved. Our nation was formed so that the minority party was to have a voice, and the Founding Fathers embraced a core Jewish principle that we never seek “victory” over an “evil” opponent but rather always seek “peace” with those we disagree with. As Rabbi Elijah Schochet has taught, “we can disagree without being disagreeable”.
So how can we regain a healthy and respectful dialogue with those whom we oppose? How can we learn to do what we believe we must without sacrificing the Jewish essence of respecting our adversaries?
One of the many answers that our tradition teaches can be found in the holiday of Tu B’Shvat, observed this year in January 16. As we remember the goodness of God’s creations; as we celebrate the gifts that God has given to all of us no matter what our beliefs, our Sages teach that it can influence our behavior to treasure our personal differences and respect every other human. The celebration of nature has the potential to lead us to understanding. In nature, we find a balance that we can emulate in our interpersonal relationships.
There is an ancient text, Perek Shirah (“Chapter of Song”, there are now many English translations of it) that reminds us to treasure all of nature, and as a byproduct, to treasure all others, even if we disagree with them. It includes prayers about all aspects of nature from the elements to plants to animals; and when we really appreciate these Divine gifts we change how we act with others. “Rabbi Yehudah the Prince said, Whoever is engrossed in Perek Shirah in the World, will merit to learn, teach, observe, perform, and fulfill; and his Torah learning will remain with him, he will be rescued from the Evil Inclination, from an evil occurrence…” (Introduction to Perek Shirah). The idea is simple: appreciate nature and take that wisdom into your relationships with others. Then there is no desire to celebrate the pain of an adversary, transcending instead into a need to bring balance and harmony to every relationship, the benefits of which extend from this world to the next.
As the political climate keeps becoming more polarized, it is incumbent upon us to remember this Jewish teaching, and not rejoice in the pain and struggles of our adversaries. When it is difficult to stay centered, let us not only celebrate this magnificent holiday of Tu B’Shvat (such an important holiday that it is mentioned in the first line of the Talmudic tractate on Rosh HaShanah), but return to nature and appreciating the gifts that God has given us all, friend and adversary alike.
Maybe then we can appreciate and treasure those we disagree with and bring real harmony into the world.
My prayer for all of us is to appreciate the Divine gifts of life, including the disagreements we have with other people; and to use these disagreements as bridges to understanding and respecting each other…making adversaries into friends and remembering that we are all the children of the same God.
Rabbi Michael Barclay
January 14th, 2022
15th of Shvat, 5782