Last week I talked about tears; the cry of Israel that reaches up to God, the cry of injustice that still reaches heavenward. Tonight, on this weekend of justice, I want to talk about healing.
There have been many in the last week who have said we need, as a nation, to move toward healing and calm, to reduce tensions, to come to a place of gentleness, a place of peace. And peace and healing are good and worthy goals, important to the fabric of our society. I have, for many years, preached about the importance for all of us being rodfei shalom, pursuers of peace.
But as those cries for peace come forward in light of the violence of last Wednesday, I can’t help but think of the words of the prophet Jeremiah, words that resound today as if he is speaking directly to us:
וַֽיְרַפְּא֞וּ אֶת־שֶׁ֤בֶר עַמִּי֙ עַל־נְקַלָּ֔ה לֵאמֹ֖ר שָׁל֣וֹם ׀ שָׁל֑וֹם וְאֵ֖ין שָׁלֽוֹם׃
“They offer healing offhand For the wounds of My people, Saying, “Peace! Peace! All is well, all is well,” When nothing is well; there is no peace.
They have acted shamefully; They have done abhorrent things— Yet they do not feel shame, and they cannot be made to blush.”
This is the weekend we celebrate and honor the legacy of the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King Junior, and he reminds us even now that “There can be no justice without peace, and there can be no peace without justice.” It is the same in our Torah portion. Pharaoh’s heart is hardened; hardened against Israel. He remains unmoved, stubborn, despite Moses’ audiences the marvels he and his brother Aaron produce, marvels that start with turning staffs into snakes and rapidly turn into the plagues of our Haggadah: blood, frogs, lice, vermin. As the portion goes on, as the plagues become more severe, as the consequences of his choices come into clear picture, he starts to become afraid. We read: “Then Pharaoh summoned Moses and Aaron and said, “Plead with the Eternal to remove the frogs from me and my people, and I will let the people go to worship the Eternal.”
Notice here what is happening; Pharaoh wants the bad things, the plagues, to go away. But there is no apology. There is no restitution. There is no acknowledgement of guilt. No humility, even. Just the request, almost a demand: ‘plead with the Eternal.’ “Make it go away. Let’s pretend this never happened.” Are we then surprised when Pharaoh changes his mind again, and continues to enslave Israel? No, we are not.
We are not surprised because, as Jews, we understand the meaning of repentance. True repentance, teshuvah, as we are reminded every year at Yom Kippur, requires contrition, meaningful apology, acknowledgement of our own fault. It requires compensation for our misdeed, either physical or spiritual, and a promise not only that we will not do the same action again, but that we will strive to not even put ourselves in the position to fail morally again in that way. In other words, we are required to be totally honest, truthful with ourselves and each other. It is, as we know, painful, to admit wrong, to look carefully at our misdeeds, but from that examination comes true peace and reconciliation. Pharaoh, like many of us, wants to skip the hard work of repentance and just be relieved of his pain, but we know that there is no shortcut to peace and healing.
There are many whose hearts are hardened, and who would like to find that shortcut to peace. In fact, our society seems to be addicted to shortcuts. But if we are to truly achieve peace, we must first go through that process of repentance, of doing the work of acknowledging wrong and repairing what we have broken. Dare I say it, we must do the work of justice, legal and restorative, in our world. Forgiveness and healing cannot be achieved through violence; it can only be achieved through careful examination of our actions as a country, our failings, and how we—yes, you and I—may have contributed to it. Have we put our own convenience ahead of the needs of our community? Have we refrained from lovingly calling out the inappropriate speech in our midst? Or worse, have we contributed to it? Have we affected positive change in our community to the best of our ability, or have we looked away, hardening our hearts? Have we sought the quick fix, the shortcut, or have we truly worked for justice? To be sure, we cannot control others’ actions and choices. But we can model the behavior we want to see in the world, and hold to account those who choose to be dishonest with themselves, who seek justification before looking carefully at their actions.
We know what happens with Pharaoh. His actions, his hardness of heart leads to the destruction of his land, his people. He refuses to do the work, and so he watches the firstborn of his nation die, and his followers drown. As a nation we still have time to turn in true repentance, to do the real work of peace and reconciliation and truth, if we choose to make it a priority. May we choose to do so, and be therefore called rodfei shalom v’tzedek, pursuers of peace and justice. Amen.