This post shares the personal thoughts and journey of an Australian Jewish man who explores contemporary social issues as these relate to an Orthodox understanding of the Torah, (the Bible) and other Jewish sources. Exploring inner peace is being at peace and in sync with God, through living out the covenant and bringing the different aspects of ourselves into harmony with God; this allows us to have hope and brings with it its own kind of inner peace.
“Jews don’t do inner peace”
“Jews don’t do inner peace”. This was my first thought when teacher Judith Hurley invited me to talk about inner peace in Judaism for a staff spirituality day. The Strife of the Spirit is the title of a book that articulates some of the Chabad Hasidic ideas that have most influenced my understanding of spirituality. The battle of the body also referred to as the animalistic soul or “evil inclination” against the divine soul looms large in the Hasidic experience. The Torah appears more concerned with the struggle to obey the commandments than peace. However, as I learned more, I recognised that peace can be regarded an overarching goal that includes obeying the commandments and living out the covenant with God.
Peace is an essential condition of existence.
This past week, I was delighted and surprised to find teachings about inner peace in the writings of Rabbi Yitzchak Arama (1420 – 1494). Arama is regarded as one of the great rationalist commentators on the Torah. He frequently quotes Maimonides’ guide for the perplexed. Yet, he regards peace as essential to all of existence including Jewish life. He explains that every being in the universe, other than God, is a composite of different components that must coexist in peace. The moment that peace is lost to a body, is the moment it is destroyed. The word ‘disintegrate’ captures his thinking. To disintegrate means to decay but also signals that it is opposite to being integrated or at peace.
Peace with God is synonymous with living the covenant.
For Arama, peace with God is synonymous with living true to the covenant with God. To obey the commandments is to be at peace with God. The gift of peace brings healing of all our faults. The opposite is also true. Regarding the verse “there is no peace for the wicked”, Arama comments that there is no punishment needed for the wicked, other than losing peace. To lose peace is to lose hope and to close off the channel of God’s blessings.
The resolution of inner strife involves inner peace.
In Jewish and Chasidic writings about the battle between body and soul or between animal and divine souls, there are allusions to cooperation and peace between them. Every morning and evening, Jews read the ‘Shema’, which calls us to love God with all our hearts. The word for hearts has an extra letter Bet, which alludes to Jews loving God with our two inclinations, the evil and good, or with both the animal and divine aspects of ourselves. The animalistic evil inclination cooperates with the Godly – good inclination to love God – putting aside their competition to conquer and control the body. Instead they are at peace with each other in joint love of God. The animal soul’s passion in the hot-headed person is harnessed by their divine soul to perform great acts of compassion beyond their ability. The two parts of the person working in harmony. Our souls are redeemed in peace.
Peace through pausing on Shabbat.
The practice of Shabbat is one of the great Jewish vehicles for peace. In the ten commandments we read, “Six days you shall work and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath for your God you shall not do any work”. The Torah instructs us to do all our work in six days. This is interpreted as God commanding us to imagine that, in fact, all our work has been done by Friday afternoon and to rest from even thinking about work. All the piles of papers in the in-tray, all the unanswered emails are as if they don’t exist. Vanished by a swish of the Shabbat angel’s wand, if I may mix my metaphors.
This approach is based on faith. If God wanted all that work done this week, He would have found a way for us to get it done. The fact that he didn’t ensure that it got done, means that it was not destined to be this week’s work. It belongs to another time. On Friday at sunset, all the work that mattered is either done, or as good as done, because Shabbat is a sacred time in which that work is irrelevant.
This attitude has been an amazing gift for me and my family. I don’t check emails or social media or lift a pen or read a work report. It is truly a holy time. Unfortunately, thoughts are harder to control than actions, and I confess that my thoughts sometimes wander to work on shabbat. But it is still a powerful way of achieving inner peace, to a significant extent, at least once a week with a flow-on effect for the rest of the week.
Accepting others and self – the ugly man
One of the great obstacles to peace is an unwillingness to accept people, either others, or to accept ourselves as we are. I have had my moments with both. Enter the ugly man story.
Rabbi Eliezer was once riding on a donkey on the coast, he was feeling very happy because he had studied a lot of Torah.
Then he noticed a very ugly man, not just in the physical sense but it was clear to the Rabbi that the man had an ugly character.
The ugly man greeted him, “Shalom, Rabbi!”
Rabbi Eliezer did not return the greeting.
Instead, he said, “Empty (headed) one! Are all the inhabitants of your town as ugly as you?”
The man replied: “Why don’t you tell the craftsman who made me, “how ugly is the vessel you made?”
Rabbi Eliezer realised that he had done wrong. He went down from his donkey, prostrated himself and begged the man for forgiveness…
A believing person has no business condemning anyone for what they are. Yes, we can object to someone’s behaviour. But I have found that sometimes what annoys me more than behaviour is another person’s essential nature. This is wrong, as they have not chosen to be the way they are. They were created that way.
The same principle applies to me. It is ok for me to be disappointed with my behaviour or choices. But I should never be ashamed or frustrated with myself for what I am. I did not create myself!
We can lose peace within ourselves and with God through our choices and walking away from God and our covenant with Him. When this happens, we can seek resolution with God. Once we seek forgiveness, we are encouraged to be confident that God will instantly forgive us. God’s capacity for forgiveness is infinite, not like humans, who might find it hard to forgive someone for their repeated mistakes. I’ve found that sometimes by focusing on my belief that God has forgiven me, I can more easily forgive myself. At a Catholic school spirituality day, I recently invited teachers to consider trying this approach on grudges they held against themselves – perhaps for ten years or twenty years – and to consider whether God’s forgiveness might allow them to forgive themselves as well.
There is also great power in forgiving others, which Jews are encouraged to do every night before going to sleep. Forgiving others not only releases the object of our resentment, it also allows us to feel at peace in ourselves.
Being at peace and in sync with God, through living out the covenant and bringing the different aspects of ourselves into harmony with God, allows us to have hope and brings with it its own kind of inner peace.