Tetzaveh: Can we work for both justice and peace


Exodus 27:20-30:10

Deuteronomy 25:17-19

I Samuel 15:2-34

Traveling around Berkeley, I often notice a bumper sticker: "If you want peace, work for justice." It seems a plausible, even compelling, recommendation. After all, if people suffer injustice long enough, it stands to reason that they may ultimately rebel. By that logic, if peace rests on an unjust foundation, it may well become unstable. And maybe an unjust peace ought to become unstable: It seems fair that those who suffer injustice finally rebel, and we root for them to succeed in their rebellion.

"If you want peace, work for justice," reads the bumper sticker. The Mishnah uses different words but apparently says the equivalent: "The sword comes into the world for the delay of justice and the perversion of justice" (Avot 5:8).

I once knew a brilliant student who fell in love with the Talmud one day when he discovered the talmudic question, "On the contrary, perhaps the opposite is more logical?" (Gittin 46b, and several other places). Try out the opposite of our bumper sticker: "If you want continued conflict, work for justice." Does it make sense? Which version makes more sense? Let us try it out on a practical example:

I recently heard a news report that Bosnian Serb leaders appeared ready to renounce their commitment to the Dayton peace accord if they do not get their way on a key issue: if opponents in the former Yugoslavia insist on extraditing certain Bosnian Serbs as war criminals for having perpetrated such atrocities as murdering civilians of other ethnic groups.

"You can have the peace agreement which our representatives recently negotiated," the Bosnian Serb leaders say in effect. "Or you can have international war-crimes trials; but you cannot have both." According to the news reports, the choice amounts to "either justice or peace." If you want continued conflict, work for justice.

Now one might argue that such a peace agreement, built on the denial of justice, does not constitute real peace. Or perhaps the Bosnian Serb leaders distrust any international war crimes tribunal, and so such justice does not constitute real justice. But in simple, direct terms, in the case at hand, working for justice means abandoning peace.

In our intimate relations as well, working for justice often adds up to abandoning peace. In the short term, we can think in terms of justice: analyzing our relationships as power struggles, worrying about whether we give too much to a relationship and whether we get enough back, worrying about whether our partner gets too much and gives too little. In the short term, such thinking can healthily correct the balance in a relationship.

In the long term, such thinking destroys the relationship. Did you ever hear of people who succeeded in keeping all the scores even — who did the dishes and who made the bed, who displayed affection more easily and who paid whom more attention — until both partners became happy with the relationship again? If you want continued conflict, work for justice.

For that matter, think about Israel and the Arabs. Ask people with a stake in the conflict between Israel and the Arabs about what they envision as an outcome, after years of instability and conflict. Often when they — I mean we — talk about what we mean by justice, we preclude peace; and when we talk about peace, we give up on our vision of justice. Perhaps only in our messianic dreams do our notions of peace and justice actually reinforce each other. Perhaps God's version of justice reinforces peace.

Given this rough world in which peace and justice do not easily come together, those of us who aspire to moral ideals sometimes just decide to value peace over justice. We can keep our hands clean. Violence comes into the world but we, at least, can decide to do no violence. Let other people become guilty; let others become their victims; we can at least decide not to enter the battle ourselves. Should we?

The special additional reading for this Shabbat before Purim, Parashat Zakhor (Deut. 25:17-19), says otherwise. At least in this one circumstance, the voice of the Lord says we must remember the deed of the ancient Amalekites — their unprovoked rear-guard attack on our ancestors in the desert — and that we must execute justice against them. Indeed, the passage insists that the war against such behavior goes on and on, even for people who love peace.