If we want peace, we must learn to listen to one another

Mishpatim
Shabbat Shekalim:
Exodus 21:1-24:18
Exodus 30:11-16
II Kings 12:1-17

Recently, I spoke with my friend Rabbi Simkha Weintraub, who had just returned from an extraordinary trip to Israel in January. The trip, sponsored by Partnership 2000 Jerusalem/New York, brought seven prominent Jewish New Yorkers engaged in intergroup dialogue together with 25 Jerusalemites working in an astonishing array of community dialogue programs.

Many of the dialogue efforts seemed to span impossible chasms of experience: Hispanics and Chassidim talking about common concerns in their Williamsburg, Brooklyn, neighborhood. New Israeli immigrants from five continents talking about their experiences of absorption. Israelis from fervently religious to militantly secular actually talking with each other. And of course, Israeli Jews and Palestinians.

The participants had different approaches. The New Yorkers were often more concerned with dialogue in the service of social change. Ironically, those living in war-torn Israel were more oriented toward simply listening to one another, understanding another’s reality, and deepening relationship, rather than doing anything.

It was thrilling to hear about these encounters. I feel sure that listening to others — across social, religious and ideological divides — is among the things the world is most in need of.

What has all this to do with Parashat Mishpatim? The Mechilta (an ancient collection of midrash) wonders why the portion begins with the Hebrew letter vav, meaning “and” — “And these are the rules that you shall set before them.” (Exodus 21:1)

The rabbis of the talmudic period, assuming the divine origin of the Torah, trust that every letter of the Torah must have meaning. In this case, they suggest that the word “and” means that the laws to be elaborated in the following section, dealing with social and communal relationships, are just as holy as the Ten Commandments in the preceding chapter.

The Sefat Emet (the rebbe of Ger) embellishes earlier rabbinic observations with an exquisite teaching of his own: …” The Ten Commandments refer to matters between person and God, but these statutes are between person and person. They are placed here to remind us that we merit Torah in accordance with the peace that exists among Israel when we are united. Of this the rabbis said: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’ (Leviticus 19:18) — that is the basic rule of Torah.'” (The Language of Truth, p. 115)

It may at first appear that this teaching offers nothing more than the ubiquitous insight that, in Judaism, mitzvot governing relationships with other people (bein adam lachavero) are at least as holy as those governing one’s relationship with God (bein adam lamakom). But this teaching goes far deeper. The Sefat Emet suggests that the core of all the teachings of Torah is the pursuit of peace. If we do not succeed in making peace among ourselves, within the Jewish community, we “do not merit Torah” — we cannot have access to any of the blessings Torah has to offer, cannot understand anything about life.

We cannot have access to the real gifts of Torah until “we [Jews] are united”? By this standard, we are heartbreakingly far away from any possibility of wisdom. Never in my life have I seen the Jewish community so at odds with one another, so lacking in ability to listen to one another with respect and caring. The rebbe poses a challenge to us: Are we willing to do the hard work of learning to listen to one another? Or would we prefer to feel “right,” ensuring that we will never understand what Torah has to give us?

My attention is drawn back to the tiny, forgettable letter vav at the start of our portion. What if Jews began to say “And” rather than “But” when they responded to one another? Better yet, what if we disciplined ourselves to say nothing in response to another’s words, until we were sure we had understood the other’s position, until we were certain that our response would contribute to the cultivation of peace within the Jewish people? Remember: This “vav,” this commandment to listen to the other, is Torah, every bit as holy as the Ten Commandments that preceded it. May we hear its call.

Rabbi Amy Eilberg, a Conservative rabbi, is a spiritual counselor in private practice.

Rabbi Amy Eilberg
Rabbi Amy Eilberg

Rabbi Amy Eilberg serves as a spiritual director, peace educator and justice activist, and teacher of Mussar. More information on her work can be found at rabbiamyeilberg.com.