Give peace a chance by seeing God in our enemies

Exodus: 10:1-13:16
Jeremiah 46:13-28

I sat behind a one-way mirror, watching with riveted attention as a group of 17-year-olds settled into their work together. At first glance, it was an ordinary set of ice-breakers, but this was no ordinary teenagers. This was a meeting of seniors from a Jewish high school in Eilat and an Arab high school in the Galilee. These kids had volunteered to participate in a three-day intensive workshop at the School for Peace, located in a community called Neve Shalom/Wahat al Salam, between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.

As the preliminary activities drew to a close, the coordinators instructed the kids to choose a name for their group, in both Hebrew and Arabic. Immediately, one of the Jewish kids called out, “How do you say ‘love’ in Arabic?” One of the Palestinian kids called out the answer, then other suggestions followed. “Hope,” suggested one; “peace,” offered another. “That’s it!” an enthusiastic teen called out: Let’s call it “Hope for Peace.” One young person offered to write out the name and proceeded to write “Hope and Peace.” “No!” another cried out in protest. “We want to call it “Hope for Peace.”

It was a brief moment of interaction. It did not halt the terror or change the course of our peoples’ tragic history with one another. But the moment moved me deeply, for such encounters, multiplied thousands of times over, are the stuff of which peace is made. That moment captured for me the courage and hopefulness of these teenagers, who had chosen to immerse themselves in an intensive encounter with people they might otherwise have considered their enemy.

This memory from my recent trip to Israel is with me as I ponder a classic piece of commentary on this week’s majestic Torah portion, bringing us toward the climax of the Exodus story. The portion begins with God’s command to Moses, saying, “Come to Pharaoh. For I have hardened his heart and the hearts of his courtiers, in order that I may display My signs among them. …” (Exodus 10:1) The commentators ask about the peculiar phrasing, “Why ‘Come to Pharaoh’? Why not, ‘Go to Pharaoh’?”

The Kotzker Rebbe responded with an extraordinary comment: “One cannot go away from the Blessed Holy One. It is impossible to go far from God, for God is present in every place, as ‘The fullness of all the earth is God’s Presence.’ Therefore God says, ‘Come,’ as if to say: ‘Come with me [to Pharaoh]. I am here for you wherever you go.” (Itturei Torah vol. 3, p. 78)

One must imagine the range of emotions Moses might have felt, preparing once again to confront Pharaoh, a cruel despot who could easily respond with murderous vengeance. Moses must have felt at least a moment of fear and indignation, self-doubt and awe. Until God said, as it were, “Come with me. I will be there for you as you approach Pharaoh. I will be with you in every word you speak, and in whatever follows.”

Would that we could hear this message when we face our own (albeit smaller) fearful encounters.

But I daresay, the Kotzker Rebbe’s interpretation does not go far enough. In our text, God does not say, “Go [away from Me] to the wicked Pharaoh,” but “Come to Pharaoh,” as if in coming toward Pharaoh, Moses would be, paradoxically, coming closer to God. The rebbe emphasizes the classic Chassidic teaching that God is present in every person, in every moment of experience, in all of life. God, then, is present in Pharaoh: in the tyrant, in the enemy, even in the raw face of evil. Still, God says, “Come to Me, even when I am hidden deep within the face of your enemy, so veiled by layers of hurt and distortion that you cannot recognize Me.”

The kids at the School for Peace, in their own way, chose to follow this command. They somehow found the strength to set aside many years of anger and hate, loss and hopelessness. They chose to go forward, even as the encounter touched feelings of pain and hurt. I, for one, palpably felt the Divine Presence in the room. May God bless their efforts, and the efforts of all those who pursue peace.

Rabbi Amy Eilberg, a Conservatve 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