By: Rabbi Menashe Sasson
Reporting from Jerusalem, Israel
Peace. Almost everyone wants peace. Pacifist antiwar “doves” want peace. Members of the military – soldiers, sailors, Marines, and airmen – the very individuals who have the most to lose in the event of war, want peace. Most pro war “hawks,” those who believe that war leads to peace, want peace. Perhaps the only influential portion of the population that may not actually want peace are those who will realize significant financial profits from war.
“Peace” is a very important and central concept of Judaism. The Hebrew word for “peace” is “Shalom” [שלום], which is also a common greeting which means “hello.”
Hebrew is a fascinating language. Like other languages, Hebrew words consist of letters. The name of the Hebrew alphabet is derived from its first two letters, “aleph” [א] and “bet” [ב], and is thus known simply as the “Aleph-Bet.” Not surprisingly, the English language word “alphabet” is derived from the Hebrew word “Aleph-Bet.”
One amazing feature of the Hebrew language is that “root” words [שורש] [pl. שורשים], which often consist of three letters, function as “building blocks” for all other words. Thus, it is not surprising that every Hebrew word is related to the root word [שורש] upon which it is based.
So too, it is with the Hebrew word “shalom,” which is spelled “ם- ו- ל- ש” (Hebrew is read “right-to-left,” not “left-to-right”).
The root of the word “Shalom [שלום] is Shalem, which is spelled “ם- ל- ש” and which means “whole,” “complete,” “perfect,” “total.”
Thus, we see that implicit in the concept of “peace” is the concept of “wholeness,” “completeness,” “perfection,” and “totality.”
To understand the Torah’s meaning of “peace,” we now turn to Parasha Pinehas.
The Jewish people were still in the wilderness, in a place called Shittim. Bil’am, having failed in his attempts to curse the Jewish people, devised a plot which was calculated to persuade Jewish men to engage in immoral acts with Moabite and Midianite women. The plot was successful. The resulting immorality brought a plague upon the Jewish people.
According to the great Torah commentator Rashi, the women would ply the men with food and drink. When a man became inebriated and sought to cohabit with a woman, the woman would pull her Baal-peor idol from underneath her robe and insist that the man bow to it.
One of the Jewish men who succumbed was Zimri, a leader of the tribe of Shimon. Zimri, in a shocking act of brazenness, brought his paramour to the entrance of the Tent of Meeting and sinned with her in public and in the presence of Moshe and the elders. Moshe and the elders were so taken-aback by this public display of immorality that all they could do was weep.
Pinehas, however, recalled the law that “a zealous one may slay” [קנאים פוגעין בו] a person who publicly violates the Torah prohibition against cohabiting with a gentile.
Pinehas then killed both Zimri and Zimri’s paramour.
For this act of zealousness, Pinehas became the recipient of the first-ever “peace prize.”
Not only did Pinehas kill Zimri to achieve peace, he received HaShem’s covenant of peace for doing so. Once again, we see that contemporary, Western philosophy, what might be called “conventional wisdom,” is at odds with the Torah.
In modern times, the definition of “peace” means to compromise with evil, to make a deal with your enemy and hope that he doesn’t persist in his efforts to kill you. It means the Oslo Accords; it means not asserting full sovereignty over the entirety of Yerushalayim, Judea, Samaria, Gaza, and the Golan Heights. It means not expelling the Arabs from Medinat Yisra’el (the State of Israel).
“Peace,” as we know from the Hebrew word “Shalom” [שלום], and its root “Shalem” [שלם], which as we recall means “whole,” “complete,” “perfect,” “total,” is a not a mixture of good and evil. In fact, compromising and making treaties with people who want to exterminate and annihilate you constitutes the exact opposite of peace.
The Master of the Universe expects the righteous to purge evil from this world. As the Rabbis taught, killing the wicked is analogous to offering sacrifices on the altar, which is a symbol of peace, “to teach that when the blood of the wicked is spilled, it is as if a sacrifice was offered.” Tanchuma, Pinehas 1.
The only way to achieve true peace, that is, to achieve wholeness, completeness, perfection, is to eliminate evil from this world by totally defeating one’s enemies. Pinehas totally defeated an enemy who sought, through immorality, the spiritual destruction of the Jewish people, which explains why he received HaShem’s covenant of peace. Our task is to totally defeat the enemies of our time who seek the physical destruction of the Jewish people.
May Medinat Yisra’el and all the Jewish people be blessed with Jewish leaders who will, like Pinehas, be worthy of HaShem’s covenant of peace.
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Menashe Sasson is a Sephardic rabbi and American attorney who resides in Jerusalem, Israel.