Sunday, February 5, 2023

Avot 1:18 What's So Funny 'Bout Peace, Justice and Truth?

Avot 1:18—Shimon ben Gamliel says. . . The world endures on three things: justice, truth, and peace.

Few among us would argue with Shimon’s identification of justice, truth, and peace as foundational virtues.  No one wants to live in a world grounded in inequality, lies, and conflict.  And yet, despite the protestors’ popular mantra, No Justice, No Peace, these core principals are often in tension with one another.  In tractate Sanhedrin, the Talmud concedes, “When there is strict justice, there is no peace, and where there is peace, there is no strict justice.”  Similarly, as Rabbi Yitz Greenberg points out, unvarnished truth is frequently incompatible with peace; in families, friend groups, and workplaces, harmony often demands the propagation of white lies, half-truths, and unspoken realities.  By way of example, when God tells an aging Sarah that she will bear a son, she laughs, declaring this unlikely since her husband is so old.  Yet in recounting this exchange to Abraham, God amends the story, saying that she blamed her own decrepitude rather than his.  From this, our Sages deduce that it is praiseworthy to shade the truth in order to maintain peace within one’s household. 

Another rabbinic parable teaches that before creating humanity, God consulted with four senior angels.  The Angel of Justice said, “Create them, for they will establish justice.  The Angel of Peace retorted, “Do not create them, for they will be in constant strife.”  The Angel of Mercy said, “Create them, for they will perform acts of lovingkindness”—and the Angel of Truth replied, “Do not create them, for they will be full of lies.”  What did God do, given this 2-2 deadlock?  God grabbed the Angel of Truth and hurled him to the earth.  By the time that angel made it back to heaven to protest—thereby fulfilling the teaching, truth shall spring up from the earth—God declared, “It’s too late—I’ve already created them.”

So how do we live with the very real tension between justice, truth, and peace?  We must learn to compromise, to recognize that life always involves tradeoffs, and remember that different contexts call for different responses.  The pursuit of peace above all else leads to the appeasement of evil.  A relentless insistence upon absolute justice leaves no room for empathy or atonement.  And an uncompromising demand for unyielding truth creates deep hurt and shame.  Only when we learn to balance these three noble causes can we truly thrive together. 

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