“Hillel used to say, ‘be a disciple of Aaron, loving peace and pursuing peace’” (Avot 1:12). There are few mishnayot as beloved as this one. It reminds us that values such as peace are those that we must actively strive for. To my mind and to the mind of most readers, this mishnah seems to call us to be resolvers of conflicts we witness or to be the ones who take the proverbial “high road” when we find ourselves in a contentious interaction.
Rabbi Yitzchak Abravanel (15th C. Portugal and Spain) reveals that this is only part of the story. He points out that when we look at the word “peace” or “shalom” in the Tanakh, it does not refer exclusively to settling conflicts. He writes that “shalom” also refers to “the common good, cooperation between people and their love for one another, which is essential for society. It is the thread that ties and unites us all together”. He then goes one step further into the theological realm stating “Therefore, God is called ‘shalom’ because it is God that binds the whole world together and supports all of existence in all of its unique forms and expressions”. Abravanel reminds us that being pursuers of peace does not require us to wait for a conflict. Each of us can pursue peace by working toward the common good, approaching life with a spirit of cooperation and love, and most profoundly, we can imitate God by supporting others in being their best self.
On a practical level, Abravanel’s commentary reshapes our understanding in a dramatic way. In essence, it makes this imperative of pursuing peace something we can find a way to engage in each and every day. In and out of our houses we can look for those opportunities to yes, bring more peace to a situation of conflict, but even when we do not encounter one, we can also seek out acts of support for others, of common good and of meaningful care. Abravanel’s insight makes Hillel’s command an opportunity for everyday holiness. Like Hillel says himself at the end of his words, “if not now, then when?”