How To Be a Person of Peace

"He asked, 'Why do you go to him today? It is not New Moon and not Sabbath.' And she answered, 'Peace.'" (II Kings 4:23)

In the context of that bit of dialogue between the Shunammite woman and her husband - about whom we read in the prophetic accompaniment to our Torah-reading this week - the wife, recently blessed with a son who now seems to have expired, is saying, 'Don't worry,' or perhaps, 'Don't pester me with questions at this moment,' as she rushes to seek the help of the holy-man who promised her the child in the first place.

Twenty years ago, this happened to be the reading in our synagogues on the Sabbath following the assassination of Israel's Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. With images fresh in our minds of likely the largest pilgrimage to Jerusalem in history - almost a quarter of the population of Israel went up that winding road to pass by the body of the slain statesman - the words echoed with new meaning:

"Why do you go to him today? It is not New Moon and not Sabbath." And the answer, "Peace."

College students today are mostly too young to have firsthand memories of King Hussein standing in Jerusalem - which from 1948 to 1967 had been part of his Hashemite domain - recalling his grandfather, King Abdullah I, murdered before his boyhood eyes in 1951, by a Palestinian, as he prayed at the Al Aqsa Mosque, and saying, in the present, over the funeral bier of the former IDF Chief of Staff - who, in the Six Day War, had fought him over the very spot on which he now stood - "When my time comes, I hope it is like my grandfather's, and like my friend Yitzhak Rabin's."

That, too, was a moment echoing of prophecy - the words almost straight out of the biblical story of the seer, Balaam, engaged by a different Transjordanian king to curse Israel, finding himself unable to do so, and saying instead, "May I die the death of the upright, and may my end be as his." (Numbers 23:10)

We hear so often of religion as a divisive force, as the cause of wars, as a zero-sum game, a clash of conflicting absolute truths - or make-believes. What gets forgotten in such characterizations is that not just conflicts but solutions, too, arise because they speak to our souls; and solutions can prevail only if they ring in our hearts as sacred truths and holy imperatives.

Take Abraham, our storied, shared ancestor, as we find him at the start of our Torah-reading this week, sitting in the opening of his tent, in the heat of the day. He lifts up his eyes and, "Behold, three people standing over him." And, despite the vulnerable moment in which he finds himself, Abraham rushes to greet the visitors, and brings them into his camp, and he and Sarah prepare food for them, and Abraham stands over them as they eat, beneath a tree.

A glance toward the continuation of the story (at least in the view of Jewish interpretation) reveals Abraham's three guests to be angels, messengers come to foretell the birth of Isaac, and to overthrow the cities of S'dom and 'Amorah. And a very early rabbinic commentary on the narrative notices that when these three figures first appear, they are "standing over" Abraham; but when Abraham serves them the meal he and Sarah have prepared he is "standing over them." We might easily dismiss this matter of who stands over whom literarily, in terms of idiom, or literally, as describing the action of a fastidious host, rising to hover attentively over honored guests. But the rabbinic commentary dares a very different interpretation, in terms of hierarchy, as it suggests: "Before Abraham did right by them, they stood over him. Once he had done right by them, he stood over them. The awe of him was cast upon them. The angel Gabriel trembled. The angel Michael trembled."

In its time, that rabbinic reading of the story of Abraham and his visitors was challenging a very common spiritual conception in which human beings existed at a fixed point on a continuum ranging upward from inanimate objects to animals to people to angels to God. For at least a moment, according to the rabbinic teaching, Abraham leapfrogged over the very highest angels in status - and all he did was feed his guests a meal. The rabbinic interpretation is saying that a human being engaged in a righteous act, even the most quotidian of good deeds, is an awe-inspiring reality. Angels of heaven descend to visit Abraham and find themselves looking up in wonder at the man - at this creature capable of a free decision to practice kindness, to consider the needs of strangers, to forge community with others.

How do we achieve transcendence in a time of confrontation? How do we discover solutions of peace that ring as holy truths in our own souls and echo as sacred imperatives in our hearts?

Wherever we start - and let's remember that Yitzhak Rabin and King Hussein started in war over Jerusalem - perhaps our deepest question should be about ourselves, asking what kind of "image of the Divine" we wish to be in this world, to borrow terms from Genesis.

Whatever we confront in those opposite us - and, to be sure, in any given decade or day, we can point categorically at obstacles and willful devastations of peace - perhaps we all should aim, ultimately, to be Abrahamic heirs who venture across our thresholds out of interest in the other, to discover how we can be of service, to give generously of what is our own so as to receive the blessings that can be annunciated only when we sit for some time together.

Perhaps all of us, as spiritual descendants of Abraham, can strive to be the kind of holy people about whom the dialogue may be spoken:

"Why do you go to him today? It is not New Moon and not Sabbath."

"Peace."