World of Our Sages: Stirring up Peace
By Rabbi Levi Cooper
A bird – specifically the white dove – has become is an international sign of peace. Following the great deluge, Noah wanted to know whether the land was once again inhabitable and he sent birds out as his reconnaissance unit (see Genesis 8). The dove returned to Noah with an olive branch in its beak, indicating that the Almighty’s wrath had subsided and life had once again begun to sprout. The image of the dove carrying an olive branch has become a symbol of hope for peace.
In Jewish tradition water is generally a powerful symbol. The Torah is compared to water, and those bereft of Torah are considered thirsty and urged to drink from the waters of our tradition. A Jewish king is crowned by pouring the anointing oil over his head. This ceremony is conducted next to a spring of water, symbolically indicating that the sovereign’s rule shall continue as water continues to bubble forth from the spring (B. Horayot 12a; B. Kritot 5b). Water is a life-giving force, and perhaps for this reason a vision of a river serves as a herald for peace.
What about a pot? How is a piece of kitchenware an omen for peace? An oft quoted explanation is cited in the name of Rabbi Mordechai Bannet (1753-1829), the rabbi of Nikolsburg in Moravia (today Mikulov in the Czech Republic).
Rabbi Bannet explained that there are no two greater enemies than fire and water; there is no way that the two can survive together or even work together. The only way that fire and water can strive for a common goal is when a pot serves as an intermediary, a liaison. Only with the help of the pot mediator can the fire be used to heat the water. Thus the pot makes peace between the fire and water, and a vision of a pot is a portent of peace.
Alas, the pot has limitations as a peacemaker. The tale is told of two rival factions who late one Saturday night knocked at the Jerusalem door of Rabbi Dov Berish Weidenfeld (d. 1965), originally rabbi in Trzebina, Poland. The visitors hoped that the renowned talmudist would personally act as a mediator between the factions and help settle the thorny issue.
Rabbi Weidenfeld recounted that as soon as he saw his visitors, he understood why they had come to him. They hoped – in the words of Rabbi Mordechai Bannet – that he would act as the pot, the intermediary who would bring about peace between warring factions.
“Before they could say anything,” related Rabbi Weidenfeld, “I told them that I was prepared to speak with them, but they should be aware that I was unwilling to discuss the dispute or even to hear one word about the two opposing groups. When they understood that I was serious, they took their leave and left my house.”
Rabbi Weidenfeld explained why he was unwilling to serve as the pot-liaison: “The words of Rabbi Mordechai Bannet are true only if the fire is a good fire. If the fire does little more than create smoke and soot, then the pot merely gets dirty and the contents of the pot are never cooked. This is the case here. The fires that are burning are nothing more than smoke and soot. If I try to act as a mediator, not only will I not succeed in achieving peace, but I am also liable to become sullied myself with the mudslinging of their fight.”
Rabbi Weidenfeld concluded: “In this case there is no real disagreement between the rabbinic leaders of the factions; the fight is between their followers.”
Returning to our talmudic passage: Rabbi Yosef Nehemia Kornitzer, who served as the rabbi of Krakow, Poland, during the interwar period, suggested that the three items listed in the Talmud as signs of peace indicate three modes that peace can be achieved.
The first route to peace is to flee from any form of disagreement. At the first indication of tension, a fight can be avoided by flight. This is the manner of the bird, who quickly takes flight even at the slightest rustling of leaves. The bird is therefore a symbol of peace, for it flies away at even a distant hint of impending danger.
The second path to peace is that of the pot, who serves as an intermediary between opposing forces – fire and water. The fire seeks to totally consume, the raw food has no interest in being cooked. Only through a medium can a harmonious outcome be achieved: The fire burns and the food is cooked all thanks to the pot who channels the heat to cook the food, while at the same time ensuring a safe distance between the two.
The third avenue to peace is flexibility and the ability to adapt to all situations. Fights often develop when a person stubbornly refuses to compromise. Being willing to cooperate, to make concessions, to forgo what is rightfully yours, can go a long way to ensuring peace. This is the way of the river, which winds its way through the landscape gushing forth when the conditions allow and idling by when necessary. If it encounters a rocky outcrop, it merely circumvents it, seeking the path of least resistance. Indeed, our sages tell us that the taste of fish in one location is incomparable to the taste of the same fish in another location, for in each place the waters reflect their unique local environs (Sifrei Ekev 39).
Peace, therefore, can be achieved by being like a bird and fleeing from a fight, by being like a pot and serving as a mediator between opposing forces or by being like a river and flexibly adapting to counter potentially flammable situations. Whatever the path, visions of peace continue to animate our dreams.
Rabbi Levi Cooper is Director of Advanced Programs at Pardes. His column appears weekly in The Jerusalem Post Up Front Magazine. Each column analyses a passage from the first tractate, of the Talmud, Brachot, citing classic commentators and adding an innovative perspective to these timeless texts.