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The Pursuit of peace: Ethics of the Fathers 1:12

The Pursuit of peace: Ethics of the Fathers 1:12

The path to peace is through loving others and loving Torah.

"… Hillel says: Be among the disciples of Aaron, loving peace and pursuing peace, loving people and bringing them close to Torah. "

Ethics of the Fathers 1:12

Our Mishnah suggests that in order to pursue peace, one has first to love it. To have a license to preach one has first to be a practitioner. Otherwise, the love, the message, the overture, although potentially packed with symbolic value, is essentially empty of substance.

Peace is arguably the noblest goal anyone can pursue, especially these days. And not only in global politics, but in our very relationships, be they in marriage, family or self. Wars, divorce, generation gaps, Prozac -- the ideal of peace is desperately sought after on every level.

And, yet, while its virtues are sung almost daily, its attainment often remains as elusive as ever. Indeed, the Talmud states that in the generation before Mashiach (the Messiah) comes, in addition to wars and drugs, there will be interpersonal discord like never before. One reason, our Mishnah suggests, as will be explained, is that peace is sometimes best achieved not when viewed as a goal, but rather the result of a common goal.

This can be illustrated by a teaching in the Talmud about the secret to marital harmony. The Talmud points out that the Hebrew words for man (ish) and woman (isha) share two identical letters (aleph, shin), and retain one unique letter each (yud for the man, hey for the woman). The common letters (aleph, shin) spell "fire" in Hebrew. The unique letters, when combined, spell "God."

When God is absent from the equation of an intimate relationship, the only thing that remains is "fire": the two parties consume each other.

Thus, the Talmud explains, when God is absent from the equation of an intimate relationship, the only thing that remains is "fire": the two parties consume each other. Materialistic man and woman are doomed for discord. The only hope for harmony is when they access and employ their unique spiritual, Godly potential.


Imagine a pyramid with a husband and wife standing at the foot of it, facing each other, but hundreds of yards apart. Sometimes they move closer to each other, sometimes farther apart. Often when they get too close they repel each other.

A better and more lasting way of getting the two together is for them to start at their respective corner of the pyramid and begin scaling it. As each individual moves up toward the point of the pyramid they naturally grow closer to each other. When they both reach the top there is a true and lasting oneness between them.

That's the difference between concentrating exclusively on "the relationship" versus concentrating on the common goal, and letting the relationship flow naturally from that. (That common goal may be raising children, making money, developing a business together, giving charity, campaigning for a political ideal. For many couples, it may be an ideal set out according to their religious principles. Whatever it is it's something that both of you feel in your bones is a worthy and necessary goal to strive for.)

People are different. Men and women are different. Perhaps one partner is better at details while the other is better at "thinking big." Or one wants to concentrate on the home while the other ventures into the outside world. Attaining true harmony honors the differences while it blends them into a functioning whole.

The metaphor of scaling the pyramid implies that neither is doing the same thing, yet they are at the same time striving for a common point. Each has a unique side with its own unique terrain to scale, but the common point means using that uniqueness to create a common result.

That's the difference between a predominantly relationship-centered mentality and common-goal-centered mentality. In the latter you get the relationship too, but it comes as the result of the goal.

Thus the Talmud teaches that the secret to marital harmony -- and by extension, every other relationship between individuals, groups and nations -- is the pursuit of a common spiritual goal.


And that is where "bringing them close to Torah" comes in. The Torah is the guide map the Almighty gave us to know if one is pursuing God, who made people in His image, or pursuing a god fashioned from the projection of some human image.

The Torah, the ultimate revelation of God and His will, is the absolute point of the pyramid, the goal that includes within it all spiritual striving. Our soul's deepest desire is to move ever closer to that point.

When Torah is the common goal, then peace is the natural outcome.

When Torah is the common goal, then peace -- the first part of the Mishnah -- is the natural outcome. The Talmud says that Torah scholars increase peace in the world. The more Torah, the more peace. This is because Torah is the peak of the pyramid, the common point.

People may not always see eye-to-eye, in fact they may seem miles apart. But if they are scaling the pyramid toward that ultimate peak, they are moving closer together, even if it's only inch-by-inch.


The problem is that many people find it difficult to relate to spiritual concepts -- to holiness, Torah, God. They're too abstract, too other-worldly. Our Mishnah addresses this when it exhorts us to "love people" before telling us to "bring them close to Torah."

The Talmud tells us that when Hillel, the author of our Mishnah, was asked to explain the Torah as succinctly as possible, he answered: "Do not do unto others as you would not want them to do to you. That is the entire Torah. The rest is commentary." Rashi explains that, "Do not do unto others..." is the Torah's command to, "Love your neighbor as yourself," worded in the negative, i.e. the minimum level of behavior each person is expected to adhere to. It's not always possible for every person to actually love others as him or herself. Nevertheless, at the very least, "Do not do unto another as you would not want done to you." This is the minimum.

Of course, if everyone did at least the minimum, the world would be a much better place.

Loving others is the cornerstone of Torah, the cornerstone of spirituality. When Abraham was speaking with God he interrupted the experience to go outside and host three lowly-looking strangers. This led the Talmud to conclude: "Kindness to others supercedes even experiencing God's presence." This world, after all is said and done, is the place to perform kindness to others. The next world is the place to experience God.

Loving people is something everyone can relate to and do. In our metaphor it's the side of the pyramid that leads to the peak (Torah). This is why our Mishnah concludes: "Love people, and bring them close to the Torah." Loving people is the ladder to spirituality.

Indeed, the Hebrew word for "people" (briyot) used in the Mishnah literally means "creations" or "creatures" (cognate of the word used in Genesis 1:1, "In the beginning God created…"). Our love of people should be rooted in the awareness that every one and every thing is created by God. People are made in the Divine Image. And if for no other reason, they should be loved.

Loving people and loving God are really one intertwined whole. Each leads to the other. Each is simultaneously the way to and the goal of the other.

Every individual has a unique spiritual mountain to climb. The Torah is both our map and our goal. The result of such a pursuit can only be that most elusive of ideals: peace, shalom.

March 13, 2004

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Visitor Comments: 6

(6) Yaakov, March 22, 2004 12:00 AM

The Author Responds

Kim, you make a good point about the pyramid metaphor. A relationship between two people who do nothing but pryamid-scale all the time is flawed. I think this can be explained with the symbolism of the Star of David. It's made up of two pyramids, one inverted over the other. Paradoxical though it is, our primary relationship has to be simultaneously goal-oriented and "being" oriented. It's unhealthy for a relationship to be all one or all the other.
Nevertheless, in a world where relationship shows, magazines, books and gurus spring up from every corner, I thought I needed to emphasize the side of the equation often left out, namely that there is something more than the "relationship," and that by pursuing that "something" the relationship naturally and organically improves.
That doesn't mean, and I did not mean to imply in my article, that couples shouldn't also spend all the necessary time together doing what couples do, like planning romantic evenings, getaways, etc. That's vital too. Sometimes we scale up the pyramid. And sometimes we have to stop, breathe and take in the moment with the one we love. Truly whole and holy people can perhaps do both simultaneously. All of us need to find the right balance between "scaling" and "being" if we hope to achieve health, happiness and a meaningful life.

(5) Kim, March 21, 2004 12:00 AM

Good article. I like the pyramid image and the common goal versus viewing the relationship as a goal though there is a danger to that as well; partners could feel it more vital to be achieving the common goal and lose sight of each other ( i.e. pursuing an income or spreading the message of Torah etc..) I have to think about this more.

(4) Noelle Stills, March 16, 2004 12:00 AM


I really enjoyed the article. Thanks for your inspiration.

(3) ralph, March 15, 2004 12:00 AM

enjoyed very much--fills in where others leave off.

(2) Anonymous, March 15, 2004 12:00 AM

Star of David = Two Pyramids

Amazing how the right words when deliverred at the right time have exceptional value. Will look at the Star of David and see the pyramid as described so beautifully.

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