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Three kinds of peace: Shalom - Shelomot
The starting point for this reflection is a talmudic text: The Pharisee always delves into his memory and turns to the texts of the Tradition in order to elucidate questions posed to him and to his generation. "What is peace?" The talmudic treatise "Benedictions" answers in a midrashic manner:
Rabbi Hanina said: If one sees a well in a dream, he will behold peace, since it says: "And Isaac's servants digged in the valley. and found there a well of living water" (Gen. 26:19).
Rabbi Nathan said: He will find Torah, since it says: "Whoso findeth me (Torah) findeth life" (Prov. 8:35), and it is written here, "a well of living water". Raba said: "It means life literally." (Berakhot 56b)(1)
Conflict over a well
The arduous road to peace:
The biblical verse quoted by Rabbi Hanina refers to the problems caused for Isaac by the Philistines. They not only filled in the wells dug by Abraham but quarrelled about those dug by Isaac his son. The first well dug by him in the wadi is called 'Esseq (dispute) because the Philistines contested its ownership. The second is called Sitnah (obstacle. Satan) and the third Rehobot (bounty) "For now the Lord has made room for us, and we shall be fruitful in the land (Gen. 26:23). The fourth well, at Beer Sheba is known as the "well of the oath" (cf. Gen. 26:33).
Here an initial peace process develops in four stages: First of all the Philistines expel Isaac from their territory and fill in the wells dug by his father. They say to him "Co away from us for you are much mightier than we" (Gen. 26:16). Then they quarrel with him about his own wells and oases fEsseq). After that they take violent action against the patriarch (Sinai) and all his undertakings. Finally he meets with peace on his territory at Rehabot: only after that is he able to make a covenant under oath with the Philistines at Beersheba. The road to peace which begins in contestation and violence is always an arduous one.
Rabbi Hanina is an optimist: he thinks that the well can certainly be a cause of dispute, firstly because it is on ground that belongs to one party and not to the other; secondly, as a source of water it is a means of wealth and is essential to nomadic life. However he also thinks that these two causes of strife can equally be the means to peace and lead to just treaties between the parties. Rabbi Nathan goes further. He wishes to lay the foundation of this treaty in Torah and not only in justice or juridical law. For him to come to agreement with those who contest the rights of the patriarch over the Holy Land is a vocation and not a passing need or duty. The well is linked to a covenant that is different from the treaties which regulate human society, its economy or its armed might. It is the place from where the call to peace comes forth, a call that is spiritual, transcendent, intrinsic to the Jewish People as such. This peace is not mere strategy but a profession of faith. Raba goes still further. The well, he says, is associated with life and with life absolutely; physically, individually, collectively and spiritually. Life — it is the well of Torah, the source from which humanity must drink in order to be truly itself. We are not on earth simply to protect ourselves, to provide for or look after ourselves; we are not here to prepare to be something other but to become fully ourselves and to flourish. It is in this third sense that the rabbis understand Shalom (peace) and Shelemut (perfection).
Rabbi Hanan bases his profound teaching on this analysis so that the phenomenology of peace, as presented by the three rabbis, may penetrate our understanding;
"There are three kinds of peace: the peace of the river, the peace of the bird and the peace of the cauldron."
What does he mean?
Other biblical passages quoted by Rabbi Hanan clarify the meaning of the symbolism used by him.
Peace as a river:
How do we know that there is a type of Shalom that is primary and is related to both the image and the reality of a river? From the last chapter of the Prophet Isaiah who teaches "Thussays the Lord: Behold I will extend Shalom to her (Jerusalem) like a river" (is. 66:12). The context of the quotation describes this shalom as both a state of being and a dynamic movement which is not the result of clever strategy, a temporary alliance or the mere absence of war. That kind of peace would only be an interlude before the next conflagoration. The "peace of the river" carries with it prosperity and love between peoples and with the Lord. It is the sum total of the peace of Rabbis Hanina, Nathan and Henan. The image of a river is more beautiful than that of a well because no one owns the river; it flows through many different countries, watering them and giving them life. As a result it is a unifying factor that at the same time respects the differing landscapes. Yet it asks for no return but gives its living waters abundantly and freely, fertilising all without discrimination. Finally its economic and geographical factors bear within them psychological and spiritual dimensions. They motivate individuals and nations to work together to fulfil common responsibilities, realise latent potential and exercise generosity towards each other.
Unfortunately the vision of shalom that is reflected in the image of the river is rarely achieved either by individuals or by groups. Most prefer to remain safely entrenched on the banks, content with the peace symbolised by the bird.
Peace as a Bird:
This image is found in the first part of the book of Isaiah:
"Like birds hovering, so the Lord of hosts will protect Jerusalem;
he will protect it and deliver it.
he will spare and rescue it" (Is. 31:5)
The penultimate verb "he will spare" is a translation of the Hebrew Passoah, in which the root Pessah (Pasch) can be recognised. Thus the image of the bird protecting its young is linked to that of the Lord protecting the Hebrews in Egypt and in Jerusalem. It is a suggestive one: the bird spreads its wings, both protecting its fledglings and preparing to fight those who seek to kill them. It quite obviously envisages peace, both for the little birds and the Hebrews in Egypt. It is a peace that is obtained at the cost of maintaining an armed force to keep off the enemy and to take action in order to protect and save the one (Pessah) and intimidate and destroy the other. The bird, spreading its wings in order to protect its family, like the Lord watching over Jerusalem and Israel in Egypt, does not rest, because it knows the dangers that relaxation and inattention might bring. It obtains peace by preparing for war. This second type of Shalom is also suggested in Psalm 121:
"...he who keeps you will not slumber. Behold, he who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep...
The Lord will keep you from all evil) he will keep your life..."
The Lord "keeps" Israel, because evil is at her door and it is necessary to be vigilant; troublemakers watch for her moments of weakness in order to destroy her. A sad sort of shalom which consists in learning how and being prepared to defend oneself! Unhappy times of peace indeed, which depend on being equipped to meet terror with terror!
Peace as a cauldron:
But there is a third kind of peace which is even more desperate and heartbreaking because it is associated with the image of the cauldron. Once again it is the prophet Isaiah who speaks of it in the first part of his book:
"0 Lord, thy hand is lifted up,
but they see it not.
Let them see thy zeal for thy people and be ashamed.
Let the fire for thy adversaries consume them. 0 Lord, thou wilt ordain peace for us, thou halt wrought for us all our works ..."
The context is apocalyptic; the lines quoted are part of what is called "The Apocalypses of Isaiah" in chapters 24-27. One of the characteristics of the peace achieved in these times of crisis or "unveiling" is found in the verb which is translated "thou wilt ordain" peace for us. The Hebrew term is Shafot its precise meaning is "to put on the fire" and, for Rabbi Hanina "to put a cauldron on the fire". Thus the literal translation of the apocalyptic line would be:
"Lord you put Shalom for us on the fire".
This is a very fragile peace, distressing and full of anguish. As the beginning of the quotation indicates (v. 11), the kind of peace associated with the boiling cauldron comes from seeing the divine power poured out to the detriment of the enemy. In fact Israel has peace because her enemy "boils". The apocalyptic terrors are for the other, not for the people protected by the Lord. From there it is but a step to a mentality in which peace is achieved only by perpetrating violence and disaster against enemy nations, by terrorism for example. Or one could believe that Israel will have peace only when the hostile nations themselves, through their own activities, pass through such terrible apocalyptic times that they leave her alone. This is what the prophet seems to suggest when he writes:
"Come, my people, enter your chambers, and shut the doors behind you; hide yourselves for a little while until the wrath is past.
For behold the Lord is coming forth out of his place to punish the inhabitants of the earth for their iniquity ..." (Is. 26:20-21)
This third type of peace, the least satisfactory of all, is indeed that of the universal patriarch, Noah. God himself closed the door of the ark on him while the flood destroyed the others (Gen. 7:16). It is also the Shalom of the Hebrews in Egypt, shut up in their houses while the plague exterminated the first-born of the Egyptians during the night of Pessah (Ex. 12:22-23). When humanity has no other choice except this third Shalom, the only thing to be done is to try and "save one's skin", as the popular saying goes; that is to say. each to save his own family, his own possessions. Rabbi Hanina reacts against this attitude because he is grieved, not only on account of the innocent victims, but also because of all death, whether of the innocent or the guilty. In fact he teaches that the following limitation must be observed in the catastrophe:
"We have to understand that the cauldron (put on the fire) must not contain any flesh."
Rabbi Hanina had read the prophet Michah and he saw that the cauldron on the fire, containing meat to be cooked, is linked with the idea of exploitation and revolting injustice; in fact Micah warned the leaders of Israel:
"Hear you heads of Jacob
and rulers of the house of Israel:
Is it not for you to know justice?
who tear the skin from off my people. and their flesh from their bones;
Who eat the flesh of my people,
and flay their skin from off them.
and break their bones in pieces,
and chop them up like meat in a kettle,
like flesh in a cauldron" (Mic. 3:1-3)
Rabbi Hanina is afraid of the unavoidable injustice hidden in the depths of this third kind of peace. If the catastrophe still spared human beings, one might resign oneself to this Shalom! If a people reconciled its own citizens with one another by carrying the violence outside the group, one could understand such acts in desperate situations on condition that human life was spared and there is no "flesh in the cauldron placed on the fire". When a people is reduced to saving itself while the "fire" ravages and "boils" other peoples, one could, if the worst came to the worst, understand it, but always with the proviso that no human life is put at risk. Rabbi Hanina longs for Shalom, but not at any price, and above all not at the cost of human life.
Rabbi Hanan has described three types of peace through the images of a river, a bird and a boiling cauldron. There is the peace that comes when violence, injustice and trouble are happening to someone else; there is the peace that comes from the power to intimidate and prevent others from harming us; finally there is Shalom imaged in the river that unites, enriches and fulfils the whole human race. Peace that is lust the absence of war, or the peace that exists in a cemetery are not the Shalom that comes into being when men and women strive to love each other and to see in every human person a reflection of the infinitely loving and life-giving God.
* Armand Abecassis is professor of philosophy and Sociology at the Universities of Strasbourg and Bordeaux. He is well-known for his articles and lectures on subjects connected with Jewish tradition. He has recently published a two volume work: La Penedo Juive - ed. Biblio (Livres de poche) 1987, which gives a panoramic view of the philosophical and religious tradition which has had an enduring influence on western civilisation.
' Quotations from the Talmud are taken from The Babylonian Talmud translated into English under the editorship of Rabbi Dr. I. Epstein Soncino Press. London, 1948.