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Rabbi Haviva Ner-David on "women's mitzvot" and transcending gender binaries

Seeking peace

Seek+peaceLately I've been working on finding the right balance between paying attention to the world and its many injustices, and cultivating an internal sense of peacefulness and compassion. Against this backdrop, a friend recently shared with me a teaching from her Buddhist practice. According to this way of thinking, if one increases one's own suffering, one adds to the suffering of the universe; if one increases one's own peacefulness, one adds to the peacefulness of the universe.

My first reaction, upon hearing this, was that it's a way of justifying contemplative practice. It's easy (for some folks) to knock prayer and contemplative practice by saying that we who engage in prayer and contemplative practice aren't "doing anything" to heal the broken world, and that therefore these spiritual practices are self-centered at best. But in this Buddhist way of thinking, if I can cultivate peace and compassion in my heart, I will add to the overall peace and compassion of the whole cosmos.

This makes some sense to me. If I can cultivate peace and compassion, I'm likelier to relate to others with those qualities instead of with impatience or anger. When I am feeling grounded and mindful and kind, I think I'm a better parent; I suspect I'm also a better partner, rabbi, and friend. That's a small-scale change which might have a ripple effect. But can my acts of meditation and prayer shift the peacefulness in the cosmos in a bigger-picture way? When I work on myself, do I really change the universe?

The Zohar speaks of itaruta d'l'ila and itaruta d'l'tata, "arousal from above" and "arousal from below." Sometimes God pours blessing, love, divine shefa down into creation entirely of God's own accord, and that divinity streaming into creation further awakens us. That's (what the Zohar calls) arousal from above. And other times it is we who initiate the connection -- with our cries and prayers and contemplation, we stimulate the flow of blessing and abundance from on high. That's arousal from below.

Contemplative practices -- meditation, prayer, chant, even the internal work of teshuvah (repentance or return) which is the primary focus of the coming month of Elul and the holidays which follow -- are practices designed to facilitate that arousal from below. When we cultivate peacefulness, or enter into teshuvah, or make a conscious effort to practice kindness, perhaps we awaken parallel qualities on high. At least, that's how the Zohar understands it. Our prayers and meditations can awaken God.

The psalmist teaches "turn from evil and do good; seek shalom/peace and pursue it." (psalm 34:14) We usually understand shalom to mean peace and wholeness in an external sense, between people(s). But I wonder whether we can also read it as an instruction to seek internal peacefulness. Maybe when I cultivate peace within myself, I stimulate the divine flow of more peace into the world. (Or, in the Buddhist framing with which this post began, I add to the net peacefulness of the universe.)

"Seek peace and pursue it" seems at first to be repetitive. If I'm seeking it, surely that means I'm pursuing it too, right? But our sages teach that there are no extraneous words in Torah -- or at least that we can find or make meaning even in the most apparently repetitive of phrases. Ergo there must be a difference between "seeking" peace and "pursuing" it. All well and good, but what might that difference be? Here's one traditional answer, from the collection of midrash called Vayikra Rabbah:

Great is shalom, peace, because about all of the mitzvot in the Torah it is written, “If you happen upon,” “If it should occur,” “If you see,” which implies that if the opportunity to do the mitzvah comes upon you, then you must do it, and if not, you are not bound to do it. But in the case of peace, it is written, Seek peace, and pursue it—seek it in the place where you are, and pursue after it in another place. (Vayikra Rabbah 9:9)

In other words: the other mitzvot ask us to make certain choices when opportunity presents itself. But in the case of peace, we have to be proactive. We have to cultivate peace not only where we are, but also in the places where we haven't been yet (or where peace hasn't been yet). We have to cultivate external peace, and internal peacefulness, precisely in the places -- and the hearts and minds and souls -- which aren't yet peaceful. And when we do this work, we can hope that we awaken God on high to do the same.