Pursuing Peace Together

This talk was written for an interfaith prayer service for peace and solidarity in the world at Aldersgate in Charlotte on May 23, 2024.

Psalm 133 states in Hebrew, “Hinei mah tov umah naim shevet achim gam yachad.  How good it is to gather together as siblings.”

In this world of polarization and pain, we come together in unity to pray for peace. We all can agree our world is in pain and consequently we are in pain.

There was an Israel poet named Yehuda Amichai who some say that was the most widely translated Israeli poet since King David. He wrote the following poem:

The diameter of the bomb was thirty centimeters

and the diameter of its effective range about seven meters,

with four dead and eleven wounded.

And around these, in a larger circle

of pain and time, two hospitals are scattered

and one graveyard. But the young woman

who was buried in the city she came from,

at a distance of more than a hundred kilometers,

enlarges the circle considerably,

and the solitary man mourning her death

at the distant shores of a country far across the sea

includes the entire world in the circle.

And I won’t even mention the crying of orphans

that reaches up to the throne of God and

beyond, making a circle with no end and no God.

The violence of our city and of our world calls us to question God, our world, ourselves, and our agency.

In 2008, when I was Senior Rabbi of Temple Beth El, I partnered with Mecklenburg Ministries in bringing an exhibit called Children of Jerusalem to Imaginon. It showcased sixty-one paintings by Israeli and Palestinian school children in Jerusalem. We also brought in two speakers from Parents Circle Family Forum made up of Israeli and Palestinian Bereaved Families for Peace. Robi Damelon from Israel and Mazen Faraj from Dahaisha Refugee Camp in the West Bank came to our Queens City. Robi’s son and Mazen’s father were both killed in the conflict. When she was here 16 years ago, Robi taught me: “Fighting here does not create peace there.”

So today we take join together in an act of resistance. In doing so, I’d like to highlight three words from the verse in Psalms with which I opened.

Hinei mah tov umah naim shevet achim gam yachad. First, the word achim in Hebrew means literally brothers or siblings. But I would add “How good it is to gather as achiot as ‘sisters’ together.

We are siblings. Those of us who identify as Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, non- religious, or any other of a multitude of beautiful worldviews that make the quilt of our Charlotte community so beautiful.

Hence, how thrilled I was when I looked at the program earlier this week and saw my Muslim sister, colleague and friend, Dr. Hadia Mubarak, on the program.  The words of Psalms 133, came to life… indeed how good it is for sisters to dwell together, to pray together, and to teach together. The truth is that we are all siblings of humanity. 

The Jewish Sages of the midrash, Jewish legends teach, that we were all created from one human being so that no person can say, “My ancestor is greater than yours.” The sages say we were created “from the four corners of the earth – yellow clay and white sand, black loam and red soil — so that the earth can declare to no part of humanity that it does not belong here, that this soil is not its rightful home.” (Pirkei De Rabbi Eliezer 1:1).

The last two words of the verse in Psalm 133 are also notable. In Hebrew, gam yachad, literally “also together”.

How good it is as sibling to gather also together. It connotes an extra level of unity when we draw together. Rashi, the most esteemed Biblical commentator reads it as when people are united amongst themselves, God dwells with them, too.

We gather in unity, when we focus not on what divides us but on what unites us. 

Every news story we hear seems to highlight polarization — political parties, race, class, sides of the Israel-Hamas or Israel-Gaza War.  Even how we label the war creates dissent. But today we come together to share what we have in common.

What unites us? The pain we feel after 228 days of the excruciating war in Israel and Gaza. The loss, the horror, the divisiveness, the skyrocketing antisemitism and Islamophobia that is manifest in hate and violence.

And the war is not just Israel and Gaza. We have experienced 819 days since Russian invasion of Ukraine.

We are entering the second year of the Civil War in Sudan where 15,000 have been killed and 8.2 million have been displaced. The War in Yemen, the Civil War in Myanmar, and the violent conflicts and instability in 24 other countries across our globe.

Today we come together in solidarity, in our unified commitment to pray for peace, to pursue peace, and not just for today but for tomorrow.

There are 613 commandments in Judaism. 

With all but two commandments, we wait for the opportunity to fulfill the mitzvah, the commandment, to come our way.  When a hungry person appears, we provide food. When we come upon an animal that is struggling, we work to lighten its burden. Only two commandments require us to chase after them. We are required to pursue justice and we are required to pursue peace.

Seek peace and pursue it, Psalm 34 instructs. The late 19th early 20th century commentator Hafetz Hayim expands on this mandate: “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.” One should pursue it until one reaches it. (Sh’mirat Halashon – Minding Speech, Gate of Remembering, chap. 17).

Seek peace today and pursue it tomorrow. One should pursue it until it is reached.

We need to think about the day after the Israel/Gaza War. My prayer is that all those who care about the Palestinian plight and the Israeli plight will care the day after about the pursuit of peace and ask: What can I do to support Israelis and what can I do to support Palestinians in their pursuit in peace. How can I invest my time, my learning, my voice, my resources, and my passion for peace?

Here is a list of Palestinian-Israeli collaborative peace efforts that are possibilities for your support.

Hinei mah tov umah main shevet achim gam yachad.  How good it is to gather as siblings together in unity.

In this world of division, we come together united in our prayers for peace. In this world of polarization, we come together in recognition of our sisterhood — even as our sisters in Israel and Gaza stand on two sides of the border.

We have to see each other as siblings. It can’t be about your safety or my safety, it has to be our safety. Peace is not achieved through naming and blaming and shaming and demonizing. Peace is achieved through healing. Peace is about moving from diatribe to dialogue  Peace can be advanced by asking, “What can I do? What can we do? Where can we invest?”

Bakesh shalom v’radfaho… seek peace and pursue it, the Psalms teach.

Peace is needed in our own souls. Peace is needed in our city. As we commit to supporting peace efforts globally, we need to commit to pursuing peace locally.

The prophet Isaiah in chapter 2 utters a prophetic vision that is engraved on a wall at the United Nations Headquarters in New York City.

“They shall beat their swords into plow shares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nations shall not lift up sword against nation. Neither shall they learn war any more.”

And the Israeli poet Amichai adds, “Don’t stop after beating the swords into plowshares, don’t stop! Go on beating and make musical instruments out of them. Whoever wants to make war again will have to turn them into plowshares first.”

May we as brothers and sister in unity pray for peace together, pursue peace together, and keep peace together. May we turn swords into plow shares and then into musical instruments so that we can celebrate together too.

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