“…you will dwell securely in your land. I will provide peace in the land…” (Vayikra 26:5-6)
After the Torah guarantees that we will dwell in our land safely if we observe the mitzvot, it states redundantly, “I will provide peace in the land.” Some commentators explain that the second reference is intended to draw our attention to the internal state of peace that should exist within the nation of Israel. The sages have told us that where there is dissension and strife among the Jews then the Satan can ply his evil trade among us. In fact according to our tradition the First Temple was destroyed in 586 B.C.E. due to widespread idolatry, but God allowed the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E. because of divisiveness, contempt among Jews and failure to provide for the most needy and helpless within the Israel’s society. But as part of our covenant with HaShem, it is understood that if we maintain peace within the community then we can be assured of peace and security from without as well.
The covenant itself is made with the entire community of Israel, not merely with select individuals who comprise it. From this we should recognize that personal piety is valueless outside the context of communal health and well-being. One cannot properly keep the mitzvot in a vacuum. To be obedient to God, others within the community must be the beneficiaries of our gemilut hasadim (deeds of loving kindness). This is why Yeshua considered neighborly love to be the most indicative response of divine love.
A congregation therefore is not just a collection of individuals; rather it is the source of meaning and direction for the lives of the individuals who comprise it. Therefore the relationship between the religious community and its members is profoundly mysterious. According to psychiatrist and prolific author M. Scott Peck, in A Different Drum, “The seeds of the community reside in humanity in much the same way that a gem originates in the ground and until it is cut and polished it is only a stone.” Like a gem its facets and also its imperfections best describe a congregation. So for the covenant community to be truly refined its members should make significant commitments to rejoice together, mourn together, to delight in each other, and make one another’s condition their own.
To appropriately honor God and uphold His highest standards the covenant community must be a safe haven where people are free to grow and heal. Since people rarely feel completely safe and wholly accepted it is incumbent upon the community to be relatively inclusive. This does not mean that every difference can or must be absorbed, or that the boundaries that define the community should be eradicated. In fact it is of utmost importance that distinctiveness and particularity of the community be maintained, yet every measure should be taken to avoid internal cliques and factions, or attitudes of hypocritical elitism. For people to truly heal they must first become willing to expose their wounds and weaknesses to others and allow them to do the same. In a safe community this kind of vulnerability snowballs, but to do so requires a willingness on the part of all to be inadvertently wounded by the wounded state of others.
For the community of Israel and each congregation that is a microcosm of it to live up to the standards of God’s covenant, they must first become laboratories of disarmament. This does not mean that we should expect utopian congregations without any level of conflict. Sometimes consensus in community is reached quickly and at other times it takes great patience. To have peace in the community, though, we need to learn to resolve conflict without emotional bloodshed, but with grace and wisdom. Learning to fight gracefully is part of the process of learning to live together peacefully.
Realistic expectations are helpful toward developing harmonious communities. Imagining our communities, as heavenly abodes with harp-laden cherubim will only add to the frustration and disappointment of all involved. Perhaps a more useful image is of an amphitheater where the gladiators have laid down their armor and have sharpened their skills of listening and understanding. The congregation should be place where we respect each other’s gifts, and accept one another’s limitations, where we bind each other’s wounds and are committed to struggling together instead of against one another.
It is popularly thought, “If a group can resolve their conflicts then they can live together in community.” I believe though that this is stated somewhat backward. The dream should sound more like this. “ If we can learn to live peacefully in community then maybe someday we will resolve our conflicts, both within and without.”