Among our most sacred values is shalom, the Hebrew word for peace. But what does peace mean? Does it demand pacifism? Is it opposition to war at all costs?
This issue arose in the 1930s in a dialogue between Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Buber. In an exchange of letters, Gandhi urged Jews in Germany to engage in nonviolent resistance. In doing so, he said, they should “refuse to be expelled or to submit to discriminating treatment.”
Buber replied and noted that the effectiveness of Gandhi’s pacifism was limited by the brutality of the Nazi regime. “Do you think perhaps,” he asked, “that a Jew in Germany could pronounce in public one single sentence of a speech such as yours without being knocked down?”
Buber, in other words, understood that nonviolence only works on a shared playing field. The Nazis did not care whether Jews protested or not.
Their hatred knew no limitations. They simply used the German military and S.S. to imprison and murder them.
In contrast, Gandhi succeeded with nonviolent resistance in India because the British shared basic Democratic values even as they imposed segregation in India. Martin Luther King succeeded with nonviolent resistance in America because of the shared values proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence.
The violence we witness in parts of the Middle East, especially Syria, is more complicated. How do you resist those who are indifferent, cruel and violent with no compunction about murdering hundreds of thousands of people?
Do you just wait for the carnage to end? Does peace simply require patience? Or does it require action?
That is a question we need to ask and answer. For a deeper explanation of the meaning of Shalom for each of us as individuals and as part of a community, see my newest guide Shalom for the Heart.
In Judaism we have a ceremony called a Bar Mitzvah. For girls it is called Bat Mitzah.
It takes place around the time the child turns 13 years old. Their responsibility is to read a section from the Torah scroll.
The particular section they read depends on the time of year.
The most difficult sections to read come from the Book of Leviticus. What teenager wants to read read about animal entrails and fertile bulls?
But Leviticus has much to teach us. We may not sacrifice animals anymore, but we do make sacrifices. We sacrifice time, money, loyalty in the service of ideas, beliefs and commitments larger than ourselves.
If you ask a parent what they want for their children, they often say “to be happy.” I can't argue with that.
But we also want more. We want them to be faithful, loving, charitable, honorable and fulfilled.
I know I do. That quest as a parent and as a rabbi guiding parents forms the basis for my next book, which is the early stages of publication. It releases in early September.
Every time I marry a couple, we go through three pre-marital counseling sessions. One of them is devoted to children.
Occasionally, my own experience seeps in.
I have two high-energy kids. This past week of Spring Break has been particularly exhausting, as we did not do any vacation. It was all family, all the time.
Is Family Time All It's Cracked Up to Be?
The biblical Book of Esther seems like a book of history. It tells of the near destruction of the Jews of Persia.
But at its core, the book is not only a history lesson. It reveals deep truths about God's plan and our responsibility.
The vehicle for that lesson is Queen Esther. She is one of the most remarkable figures of the Hebrew Bible because she defies so many expectations.
The first expectation is that she would be a quiet compliant queen. That seems to be the set up when King, Ahasuerus banishes his first queen Vashti because she would not instantly obey his orders.
When he chooses Esther to succeed her, we expect her to be quiet and obedient. She is a helpless orphan who has won the marital lottery.
But she defies our expectations. She listens. She observes. She looks out for her husband…and she acts. With help from her uncle, she protects him from an assassination attempt. He survives thanks to her savvy.
I've been thinking of Esther not only because Purim—the holiday celebrating her heroism—is coming up soon, but because I was reminded of her recently when I conducted the funeral of a 96 year old widow.
Her husband had been a very successful attorney. But at the memorial service, person after person remarked upon her ability to help him navigate the treacherous political waters of his law firm and civic life.
She was not so much “the power behind the throne,” as she was his complement and true partner in life. She was what the Bible calls an ezer k'negdo.
Esther was that for King Ahasuerus. But she was even more. She looked out not only for him. She cared for her entire people. And she used her position to serve God.
Her service culminated in a beautiful moment when she stepped out of her own time and place, and entered into the pages of history.
Back in seminary we read a book called The Wounded Healer. The essential message was that painful experiences are life’s best teachers. They teach us, as one famous politician put it, “to feel your pain.”
But we may not understand another's pain. Someone who has not had cancer cannot understand another person’s diagnosis. But the wounded healer can relate by recalling experiences of feeling powerless and out of control
I didn’t appreciate the book at first. I had lived a fairly charmed life and thought I was already a pretty good pastor. But the more I grew, the more I saw its wisdom.
Ernest Hemingway once said, “Life breaks everyone, and some are strong in the broken places.”
The Broken String
Are you familiar with Yitzhak Perlman? He is one of the most famous violinists in the world. He also contracted polio at age 4 and has had to wear metal braces on his legs ever since.
One night he was in Houston playing a concert to a packed auditorium. A few minutes into the piece, one of the violin strings broke. The cracking sound was audible.
Everyone gasped. They expected him to pause and send for another string or violin.
Instead, he motioned the conductor to go on. He played the rest of concerto on three strings.
At the end of the performance, the crowd gave him a standing ovation and called on him to speak. He leaned into the microphone and said,
“Our task is to make music with what remains.”
That’s not only a comment about the broken string. It’s a comment on life. Like Yitzhak Perlman, each of us makes music with what remains.
What remains is the beauty that is inside of us. Some people have a hard time letting that beauty out.
There is no magic cure. But there are proven tools and guides. You can find a few of them in Shalom for the Heart: 50 Torah-Inspired Devotions for a Sacred Life.
Earlier this year a friend of mine delivered a sermon at Marble Collegiate Church in New York City. Facebook comments soon informed him that the church had once been headed by Donald Trump's favorite minister.
That minister was Norman Vincent Peale. Reverend Peale presided at his marriage to Ivana. Trump has spoken about Peale’s extraordinary sermons and teachings.
Regardless of what one thinks about Trump, his favorite minister warrants renewed attention. While Peale was popular in the 50s and 60s, he fell from the public eye because of some of his more conservative political positions. His writings were also seen as simplistic and backwards-looking.
But there is a difference between simplistic and simple. Peale’s writing is far from simplistic. It does, however, convey some simple and overlooked guidance for living happier and more productive lives. What are they?
One of the reasons we love to order from Amazon is the speed. You can get a new shoes on your doorstep tomorrow.
In downtown Chicago, you can get fresh fruit within two hours. Amazon creates instant gratification.
Paradoxically, however, Amazon’s founder, Jeff Bezos, thinks primarily of the long-term. His perspective is the opposite of instant gratification.
A few years ago he funded a big clock tower in West Texas that ticks once per years. It is built to last 10,000 years!
Do you know that great Burt Bachrach song, “What the World Needs Now is Love, Sweet Love?” Very true.
But the world also needs Shalom. Shalom is peace, wholeness, integrity. It is grace, fullness, trust. (For an understanding of the Shalom is really used in the Bible, see chapter 8 of www.rabbimoffic.com/jewishjesus
How do we get more Shalom? We start small. When I was young,” recalled a great nineteenth century rabbi, “I wanted to change the world. I tried, but the world did not change.
The world is not the same without Elie Wiesel. He did more than write. He did more than teach. He symbolized survival and hope.
I met him at age 13 when my dad and I drove from Milwaukee to Chicago to see him speak. Afterward we went up to talk, and my dad embarrassed me by telling Wiesel I wanted to become a rabbi.