We’re all in favor of shalom. So why does machlokes trip us up?
"All in favor of machlokes, raise their hands,” I told the audience. “Now, all in favor of shalom, wave your hands.” It wasn’t much of a contest.
We’re all in favor of shalom. So why does machlokes trip us up? Why do we find ourselves fighting to bite our lip and not say words we know will lead to bad feelings? Why do we secretly play out scenarios in our mind in which we get back at that guy, or give it to our boss, our mother-in-law, or the person who got my job?
Let’s face it. People fight. Even nice people. Even frum people. In all places, all cultures, all situations.
The Origin of Machlokes
The Maharal, quoted in Nesivos Shalom on Avos, says that the yetzer hara for machlokes overpowers people more than he tempts us in other areas. We see that soon after the creation of man, the first two brothers have a fight that quickly spirals into murder. That didn’t take very long!
Our Sages label This World alma d’piruda, a world of division. That is the source of machlokes in the world. On the very first day of Creation, the Torah uses the term vayavdel. Hashem created a division, He formed the world through a process of differentiation. It’s built into creation.
This is a paradox. Creation is an expression of Hashem’s Oneness, which means that everything in the cosmos comes from One Source. There is no person and no thing that can exist without Hashem sustaining it at every single moment.
In the well-known mishnah in Avos, we learn: If I am not for myself who will be? The mishnah continues: And if I am for myself, what am I? The Nesivos Shalom explains that the entire system of Creation was built in such a way that if a person tries to live completely alone, he won’t be able to survive. The whole world is dependent on the interdependence between a mashpia and a mekabel, a giver and a receiver.
We can hardly function a day without being the beneficiary of the electric company who keeps the lights on, who in turn benefits from those who manufacture the wires and equipment necessary for the infrastructure, who in turn benefit from the natural resources necessary for the manufacturing process. Each stage in the process of producing electricity is dependent on the contribution of the step before it, all of which come together so that I can plug in my computer and type this article. This is true even in the plant kingdom, where the heavens are the mashpia and the earth is the mekabel. HaKadosh Baruch Hu is the Only One who sustains and isn’t sustained by anything else.
Yet at the same time, we sense ourselves as separate and distinct from each other. I am I, and you are you. We have differences, and those differences get in our way often enough and lead to dispute.
The Danger of Hatred
We all know that the second Beis Hamikdash was destroyed because of baseless hatred. But what really is the sin of hating someone? It’s a negative commandment: “lo sisna es achicha b’levavecha — don’t hate your brother in your heart.”
The first Beis Hamikdash was destroyed because the Jewish People disregarded the three cardinal sins for which a Jew is required in certain circumstances to give his life. But we’re not required to give up our life for a negative commandment. Our possessions perhaps, but not our lives. So why the severe punishment for the baseless hatred?
A lack of shalom has within it something even more overarching than the transgression of a negative commandment. Shalom keeps the world in existence, and machlokes brings destruction to the world.
Hashem Who is One created a world in which He is hidden. The purpose of the world is to uncover His Oneness. Each of us is meant to chip away at that hiddenness, living a life that is reflective of that unity, until Mashiach will come and pull the curtain aside that has been obscuring the view. At that point we’ll see clearly that there’s only One Source for everything, that it all came from Him, and that ultimately it was all good. On that day, we’ll be able to see with complete clarity that He is One and His Name is One.
Shalom moves us in that direction. Machlokes moves us away from that purpose, toward destruction and chaos.
So what is shalom?
Let’s start with what it’s not.
It’s not sameness. If Chani and Ita grew up in the same neighborhood, went to the same schools, are both married with one baby, get together for lunch, and agree on mostly everything, they are certainly friends and can have a good time together, but their relationship doesn’t personify the middah of shalom.
Shalom brings the far and the near together in a state of healing, says the pasuk in Yeshayahu (57:19) “Peace, peace to the far and to the near, says Hashem, and I will heal him.” It’s the state that’s created when two people are different, and in spite of their differences, they manage to have harmony between them and build a relationship.
Shalom isn’t sameness, it’s wholeness. It occurs when two different pieces fit together. Shalom isn’t static, it’s active. It’s something that needs to be created. Just as the One Above makes peace in the heavens (oseh shalom bimromav), so too we need to create peace in our realm.
Shalom starts with the understanding that to get along, we don’t have to agree on things; we can respect each other for the tzelem Elokim we each have. If we accept that premise, we can move to the next step, which is the understanding that we can tolerate the differences, and even if it isn’t comfortable, we can hold that discomfort and nothing bad will happen to us.
The Greatness of Shalom
To live a life in which shalom is paramount, we have to internalize that shalom is crucial. With it we have everything; without it, it’s impossible to enjoy other brachos Hashem brings our way.
A wonderful rebbetzin I know always blesses people that they should make simchahs with a joyous heart. Anyone who has been involved in a wedding where there’s machlokes knows how it sucks the happiness out of what could be the most joyous and spiritually uplifting event.
In the tractate of the Talmud called Derech Eretz Zuta (part of the masechtos ketanos of Bavli), there’s an entire chapter at the end called Maseches Shalom. In it, every mishnah starts with the line “gadol hu hashalom; senuah hamachlokes, how great is peace and how despised is strife.” We learn that shalom brings Hashem’s mercy and machlokes brings His strict judgment upon us.
This past year and a half has brought home to me powerfully just how great is our need for Hashem’s mercy. Restoring shalom once it’s been damaged is one of the most challenging tasks imaginable, but I can’t think of anything that brings more benefit to the individual or the klal. Can you?
The challenges to shalom are real. And personal. And ubiquitous. Here are some practical tools to help us achieve it:
- Know the hierarchy of values. Shalom is at the top. It trumps just about everything else. Shalom is more important than being right. We like to be right; we feel validated, like we’re good people. But being right isn’t the most important thing. Being b’shalom is more important. Shalom is synonymous with shalem, and when we embrace shalom, we’ll be more whole.
A young kollel wife I know spent three months mediating a machlokes between two frum businessmen whose dispute was in an area in which she had an expertise. She volunteered for the sake of shalom. After the two parties came to an agreement, one showed up at her door with a box of chocolates and the comment, “I hope the other fellow gives you money, because after all, he was wrong and I was right.” To have shalom, you have to let go of the notion that things always have to be your way. The choice shouldn’t be my way or the highway, but rather my way or the high way.
- Shalom is worth money. Make a shalom fund like the Chofetz Chaim suggests. Put aside money each Rosh Hashanah to cover the cost of keeping shalom, so when your neighbor borrows your iron and returns it with gunk stuck to the bottom, the money in your shalom fund can cover the cost of a new iron.
- Put aside your feelings for the sake of something bigger, something that Hashem wants, something that brings brachah into the world. Lack of shalom is always about the small picture — he and me. Me and she. The more you enlarge the picture, the more shalom becomes possible. If I keep the fight going with my sister or sister-in-law, that’s one picture, a small one. But now let’s make the picture bigger. What does our family look like now? What’s the picture of the larger family, the community, Klal Yisrael? Am I marring the big picture? A critical element in maintaining shalom is seeing the bigger picture. Don’t react instantly. In that several second delay, our feelings can be reined in and our brains can check back in.
- Train yourself to think: Where is the other person coming from? Are they hurting, tired, insecure, threatened, jealous? As soon as we can step out of our own experience and attempt to understand the place of the “other” in the picture, we can think (again, letting the brain check back in) about what the other person is experiencing right now. Where are they coming from? We may be able to find compassion instead of anger.
- Put Hashem in the center. Picture a wagon wheel with a center, spokes, and a rim. If we are at the center of our universe, then many events in life will be experienced as an affront. If Hashem is the center, and I, like you, are a spoke in the wheel attached to that center, it becomes easier to remember that He is our Tatty and He loves me and He loves you. The more we can get out of the you versus me, and instead think that you and I are in different places, but each contributes from the point she’s in, the better chance we have at shalom.
- Give something up if you have to. You have a promise from Hashem that He’ll restore what you gave up. Maybe not that exact thing, but maybe something much more valuable.
When Shimi ben Geira cursed Dovid Hamelech and threw dust on him, Dovid didn’t allow his servants to respond in his honor. “Hashem told him to curse!” he said. And the Sages tell us that at that moment, Dovid merited becoming the fourth wheel in the chariot that brings Hashem’s honor to the world.
Challenging ourselves to raise the bar of shalom in our own lives is a meaningful way to respond to both the tragedies of the past year and this difficult time leading up to Tishah B’Av. May our efforts help change His strict judgment to the mercy we all need.
Debbie Greenblatt is a senior lecturer for the Gateways organization and a teacher of both observant and not-yet-observant Jewish women for over 30 years. Debbie’s lecture topics include Jewish texts, Jewish thought, and relationships.
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 748)
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