Sermon: For the sake of the ways of peace

Written by Rabbi Josh Levy — 18 May 2019

So what, the rabbis ask, are you to do if your neighbour is working the land during the sabbatical year, the year in which the Israelites are commanded not to do so?

How are you to respond, how should you interact with them?
Should you seek to persuade them?  Or maybe the right thing is to shun them and their wicked ways?  Perhaps, it’s time to move house to a different neighbourhood where you are only surrounded by other Jews who will take this stuff seriously?

The Mishnah – the earliest collection of Jewish law, a compilation of rabbinic traditions from the first two centuries CE, tells us the following:
“A woman may lend a fan or a sieve or a handmill or a stove to another woman who is suspected of not observing the seventh year, but she may not sift or grind with her” (Mishnah Gittin 5:9)
That is, it is permitted for her to lend items to someone to help them to sift, mill and cook the grain that they, according to the Torah, should not have been growing in the first place, as long as she doesn’t do it herself.

And what if your neighbour is a non-Jew and therefore not bound by the laws of sh’mitah?  The same Mishnah states that if you see non-Jews working the land during the sabbatical year not only do you not challenge them, but you should wish them well.  The medieval authority Maimonides states in his code:  “Non-Jews may be encouraged in the seventh year with words. If, for example, you see a non-Jew ploughing or sowing, greet them with expressions such as: “Be of good courage!” or “Good luck!” (Mishneh Torah: Laws of the Sabbatical Year and Jubilee 8:8).  This is OK, as long as you don’t yourself get involved.

These are two really extraordinary texts.  They reveal an attitude to religious life in the earliest layers of our tradition which is far from that which many would assume.  In effect, someone may facilitate – up to a point – another person’s choice not to keep a mitzvah as long as not themselves doing something wrong.  And if our neighbour is not Jewish we can, indeed should, engage with them and encourage them, even in their doing of something that we understand ourselves to be forbidden to do.  According to these texts our primary concern should be our own religious life, rather than seeking to sit in judgement on that of others.

Importantly, our relationships with others here take priority over other religious considerations.  Not priority over everything – someone shouldn’t themselves work the land during the seventh year, or – for example – stray into idolatry just in order to keep their non-Jewish or non-practising neighbour happy.  But nor should they allow difference in religion or religiosity to sour the quality of their relations with others.

Both of these injunctions are included in a category of rules instituted by the rabbis, we’re told ‘mipnei darchei shalom’ – For the sake of the ways of peace.
Fundamentally – for the sake of the quality of inter-personal relationships.

Some of these rules were about maintaining the order of the Jewish community itself.  Avoiding broiges.  Others were about the way the rabbis conceptualised their relationships with their non-Jewish neighbours.  And this in itself is worth dwelling on:  The early rabbis, living in the diverse Judea of the Roman Empire, understood that our relationship with others mattered.  Not for them an insular, inward-looking view of life.  We are explicitly told in the Mishnah to greet our non-Jewish neighbour.  That is, to be in relationship with them, mipnei darchei shalom.

With these relationships, the early Sages stated, come obligations beyond ourselves.  The Mishnah – that early layer of our tradition – requires that non-Jewish poor be allowed to gather the gleanings of our fields – the primary way in which the ancient agricultural system provided for those in need (Mishnah Gittin 5:8).  Non-Jews, together with the Jewish poor could collect, mipnei darchei shalom.

The Talmud, from its non-agricultural, more urban setting, extends this.  It states that, “We feed non-Jewish poor together with Jewish poor, visit their sick together with Jewish sick people, bury non-Jewish dead as well as Jewish dead, mipnei darchei shalom, for the sake of the ways of peace” (Babylonian Talmud Gittin 61a).

Not everyone in Jewish history has celebrated this idea.  Or, indeed, carried it out.  Some medieval commentators maintained that the actual reason for these rules was self-protection. They suggest that while mipnei darchei shalom seems to be altruistic, it actually comes out of a deeply particularisation concern.  That is, the intention of the rabbis was that if we do not do these things we might put ourselves at risk; it was a strategic manoeuvre to avoid tension.  This equates mipnei darchei shalom to what is known in rabbinic law as mipnei eivah, “because of potential enmity”.

Underlying this understanding is an assumption of at best indifference, and at worst of ill-intent, the inevitability of conflict.  It will come as no surprise that this explanation seems to have been especially resonant in places where Jews and non-Jews did not interact positively, such as the Ashkenaz of the Middle Ages – in which Jewish wellbeing was also largely at the whim of those around.

But to describe our tradition in this way does not reflect the Mishnaic ideal.  That was not their reasoning.  And to respect these laws only grudgingly, if at all, is not the idea.

Mipnei darchei shalom means to promote peace in the world as a positive ideal.  To those early rabbis it is the core purpose of Jewish existence.  The Talmud in its discussion of these laws states “Kol hatorah kulah… mipnei darchei Shalom hi” – all of Torah is for the sake of the ways of peace”.  As a proof text it brings the verse from Proverbs which we just sang as we ended our Torah service – D’racheha darchei no’am, v’chol n’tivoteha shalom – Its ways are ways of pleasantness and all its paths are peace (Proverbs 3:17). For those of us who gathered together here on Wednesday evening for our annual Iftar, this should resonate.  We unquestionably shared in a sacred moment, an act of Torah – promoting peace in the world through our connection and relationships with one another, embracing our differences – a true reflection of the value of ‘darchei shalom’.

In his discussion of these rules, Maimonides brings another biblical verse, a verse from Psalm 145: tov Adonai la’kol, v’rachamav al kol ma’asav – God is good to all, God’s mercy on all God’s works (Psalm 145:9). To act ‘mipnei darchei shalom’ this suggests, is to reflect God’s attitude to all human beings.  It is a fundamental act of imitatio dei – of seeking to imitate the divine.  That is, to acknowledge that God’s care is irrespective of observance, irrespective of status or religion.  The Jewish ideal is not a grudging, self-serving compromise with the world, but a genuine care for other human beings.  The Tosefta, another text from that earliest layer of rabbinic literature tells us that not only do we bury the dead of the non-Jew but that we eulogise for them, and we comfort those who mourn (Tosefta Gittin 3:18).  We accompany them through bereavement and mourning as we would any in our community.

So, what to do if your neighbour is not keeping the sabbatical year?
As is so often the case, the question that the rabbis ask about a section of Torah is as revealing, maybe more revealing, than the Torah itself.  When they ask about our reaction to non-observance of the sabbatical year, they get to a fundamental question about what it really means to live a Jewish life.

They place at the heart of our Jewish identity a concern for relationships.  And that includes the relationship between those who do and those who do not; between Jew and non-Jew.  Religion and religiosity are not to divide us.
And this is not a grudging compromise, but our sacred duty.
Our fundamental task as Jews is to act mipnei darchei shalom – for the sake of the ways of peace.