A Kabbalistic Approach to Spiritual Growth

A Kabbalistic Approach to Spiritual Growth: Part 52 – The Pursuit of Peace

Even good attributes, already tempered and working at capacity, require further reinforcement and rectification as expressed by: "Search for peace and pursue it" (Psalms 34:15).  The Hebrew words for "peace" and "pursuit" themselves hint to the work specified here. Peace (shalom) has two equally common definitions–as absence of war and as perfection/completion. Therefore we are told to search for that which is already perfect, and pursue it. The Hebrew word for "pursue" (rodef: reish-dalet-pei) contains the same letters as the word for "separation" (pairud: pei-reish-dalet). This implies that the object of pursuit is that which is separate in the sense of not being connected to Torah–that is, any attribute which remains in its innately positive state, complacent, but which has not forcefully uplifted to God. This is because those talents and tendencies that are natural to a person (even when pure) remain separate from God on some fundamental level if they are not further developed.

This idea is expressed in the Talmud in a story that describes how Rabbi Eliezar and Rabbi Akiva prayed for rain.  First, Rabbi Eliezar came forward to pray on behalf of the congregation. He said twenty-four blessings and received no answer. Then Rabbi Akiva took his place. He barely began a simple prayer when he was answered immediately with rain. But when the people thought that it was because Rabbi Akiva was greater than Rabbi Eliezar, a heavenly voice declared, "It is not because one is greater than the other, but because one transcends his own nature and the other does not."

Rabbi Eliezar and Rabbi Akiva both struggled desperately and single-mindedly to raise themselves above the lacks and limitations of their familial backgrounds (which were equally void of religious training) and to refashion their characters according to Torah ideals. Yet Rabbi Akiva went a step further. After achieving the supreme level of distinction of becoming a Torah giant of the generation, he remained humble. He was still willing to yield to dissenting opinions when possible, or when a majority of his colleagues ruled otherwise. Conversely, Rabbi Eliezar was stubborn. He was unquestionably more brilliant than even the most learned of his peers and so acquired the trait of always insisting that he was right (which usually, objectively, he was). Nevertheless he needed to go beyond himself, to humbly acknowledge that there are often several equally valid approaches to truth, and to submit gracefully to the majority of the Sanhedrin (the Jewish Supreme Court). Even though Rabbi Eliezar remained objectively wiser than Rabbi Akiva, it was the latter's humility as evidenced by his willingness to concede to other opinions where possible or necessary that, according to the Talmud, caused his prayer to be immediately answered with rain. He did not rest upon his intellectual accomplishments but cultivated humility even in the area of his excellence.

Thus, to "pursue peace" is to sniff out any trace of complacency or self-satisfaction within that good quality, for that is the point of separation and independence from God. According to the sages, we should pursue that which is "out of place," meaning any trait, no matter how good, that has not been consciously subjugated to God's will. Through this effort of "pursuit and capture," we return the good to its proper place within our relationship to God. This, in turn, actually strengthens and reinforces the positive aspects of that quality, for now it receives a more direct flow of support from God.

The Talmud teaches that a person's reward is determined by his effort and the hardship he endures in pursuit of good. "In accordance with the effort is the reward," and not by any objective standards of accomplishment. In other words, people with a naturally benevolent disposition, even those whose generosities have become a legend in their community, must go beyond the point where it is natural and easy to give, and overcome their resistance to doing that little bit more. It is from this "effort" of pushing through resistance that comes the greatest reward, and not in the many generosities that come naturally, no matter how noteworthy they may be.

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