From Enemy to Friend: Jewish Wisdom and the Pursuit of Peace

Hands Across the Divide Statue in Derry, Northern Ireland

Maurice Harron via Flickr (CC by 2.0

During a recent week-long retreat at a Buddhist retreat center, I found myself in a state of quiet joy unlike anything I had experienced before. In complete silence except for occasional talks by the teachers in the serene meditation hall, two hundred retreatants had come to devote themselves to the Buddhist practice of loving-kindness meditation.

Each of us received the same instructions—to silently offer wishes of well-being to a variety of people, using classical Buddhist phrases or words of our own. “May you be safe. May you be well.  May you be happy. May you be at peace.” On the first day we were to offer well wishes to ourselves, since cultivating our own reservoir of loving-kindness is what best enables us to develop kindness toward others. On the second day we were to offer the same hopes toward someone so beloved to us that the very thought of that person immediately makes us smile. As we developed increasingly powerful sensations of the power of loving-kindness in us, we moved toward wishing for the well-being of people that we hardly know and even to people who had hurt us, if and when we felt ready to do so, and ultimately, to all beings in the world.

Having been on such retreats before, I knew that the next step was to experiment with offering blessings to everyone in the room and eventually to everyone in our lives. I had heard a teacher suggest that we wish for the well-being of every person who crossed our path as we walked silently around the retreat center, on the way to or from lunch or the meditation hall. The moment I would see someone coming in the opposite direction on the path, I would silently recite, “May you be safe. May you be well. May you be happy. May you be at peace.” I began to do the same for people who crossed the path of my thoughts. As someone in my life spontaneously floated into my awareness (a friend, a community member, an estranged family member, a despised political figure), I offered the phrases to that person as well. “May you be safe. May you be well. May you be happy. May you be at peace.”

The practice was flowing through me. In those blessed moments and hours during which my concentration was strong and focused, I genuinely wanted the best—the basic blessings that I know all people desire—for everyone who crossed my path, either physically or imaginatively.

Then I noticed something really interesting.

I realized that I felt as if I had gotten very fat, as if my belly and chest had filled up with loving-kindness.

Then I realized that I felt happy. Very happy. That overstuffed feeling shifted into feeling full of joy. It was so wonderful, in that moment, to have kindly feelings toward everyone. It was something like the mysterious way in which helping another or giving a gift to another brings us joy. But I wasn’t doing anything or giving anything. I was just walking around the retreat center, full of love for everyone.

Of course, the experience did not leave me in a permanent state of total love and kindness. Nor did it leave me with a craving to reproduce the experience on any particular schedule. It was a moment’s experience that came and went, as all experiences do.

But I did leave with a powerful and precious memory to reflect on. As I thought about what had happened for me that day, the memory became a kind of prayer. Remembering that sensation of feeling full of love and joy for all the people in my life and for myself, I knew that this was the way I wanted to live, as much and as often as possible. I knew that this was what my work on peacebuilding is about: trying to bring a measure of kindness and blessing to everyone I encounter.

It is as simple and as challenging as this. The desire for the well-being of all people is what moves us to work for peace, and this same desire makes it possible for us to care for all people in any conflict.

Though we may be more connected to one “side” or more inclined toward one viewpoint in the dispute, on a deeper level, we sense a bond of common humanity with everyone involved.

We want what is best for all of them. Like a parent responding to estrangement among her children, she wants for all of them to be happy, for all of them to thrive, for all of them to be free of the pain of ruptured relationships.

This is what I wish for you and for all people who honor the cause of peace. I want for you to believe that it is a meaningful and attainable goal in our lives to touch the natural desire of our hearts to feel kindness, to embody caring in our relationships, in our communities, and in our world. I hope that this ground of kindheartedness toward all people will move you to bring a healing presence to conflict wherever you encounter it— from arguments in your family and workplace to deeply broken personal relationships in your life to connections of open-hearted curiosity with people of religions and political views different from your own. I want your benevolent sense of caring for all who live on God’s earth to move you to help ease pain and restore connection in the human family.

Most of us ordinary mortals cannot live this way all the time, but we can live this way some of the time, and surely that makes a difference. The more of us who adopt this goal as an intention for our lives, the more peace and harmony there will be in the world.

Grant peace, goodness and blessing, grace, kindness, and compassion upon us and all Your people Israel. Bless us, our Parent, as one, with the light of Your face, for in Your light You have given us, O God, the Torah of life, love of kindness, justice, blessing, compassion, life, and peace. May it be good in Your sight to bless Your people Israel at all times and at every moment with Your peace. Blessed are You, God, who blesses the people Israel—and all the inhabitants of the earth—with peace.

This beautiful prayer, offered every morning of the Jewish year, and in a slightly different form in evening prayers as well, asks for God’s blessings of peace upon us all. Strikingly, the prayer associates peace with a host of other blessings: grace, kindness, compassion, justice, and life itself. Perhaps in this prayer we are asking God for an array of separate blessings. Or perhaps, this text teaches that peace is inextricable from goodness, ease and well-being, justice, good health, and harmony. These are the blessings for which everyone longs.

Prayer for peace has become a central practice in my life. We cannot know how prayer works in the world. But I know that the more we pray for peace, goodness, health, harmony, and grace for all beings, the stronger will be the power of peace and kindness in the world.

This is an excerpt from Rabbi Amy Eilberg's From Enemy to Friend: Jewish Wisdom and the Pursuit of Peace, published by Orbis Books in March 2014. Rabbi Eilberg is an author, peacebuilder, and spiritual director. She serves as the director of the Pardes Rodef Shalom (Pursuer of Peace) Communities Program, helping synagogues and Jewish organizations place the pursuit of peace in interpersonal relationships at the center of their communal mission.