Photo Credit: Jodie Maoz

Hillel and Shammai received [the oral tradition] from them. Hillel used to say: be of the disciples of Aaron, loving peace and pursuing peace, loving mankind and drawing them close to the Torah.

Peace psychologists study the best ways to resolve conflicts and foster harmony among nations, groups, and individuals. Besides the life and death ramifications related to peace between different countries, there is ample evidence that contentious conflicts lead to loss of productivity and financial success in businesses and to psychological and physical health problems for individuals (Pruitt & Kim, 2004). Managers, leaders, or therapists can use various strategies to help with conflict management. A few common options include improving communication, practicing active listening, empathy, problem solving, and keeping a positive attitude.

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In this mishna, Hillel advises to be like Aharon HaKohen: to love peace and pursue peace, love mankind, and draw them close to Torah. The adjuration to “be like” (hevei) connotes a transformation precipitated by modeling Aharon’s character traits. Even if we don’t inherently possess the personality traits of Aharon that facilitate loving and pursuing peace, through diligently following his example, we can transform our personality.

The use of Aharon as a model is illustrative. Pirkei Avot is filled with advice from many Talmudic sages, but most don’t invoke a Biblical precedent to prove their point. Hillel could have just said “love and pursue peace” and we would have been inspired. Rabbi Yosef Yavetz suggests that the use of Aharon as an exemplar teaches that nobody should think that getting involved in disputes – which can sometimes consist of mundane and even coarse content – is counter to their dignity. Even Aharon, the great Kohen Gadol, did not find these matters beneath him.

The commentaries glean a host of other valuable insights from a close reading of the mishna. What is the essential difference between loving peace and pursuing peace? Why the seemingly redundant language? Rabbeinu Yonah suggests loving peace reflects an internal disposition, while pursuing peace is done with one’s external actions. Rabbi Eliezer ben Natan (Raavan) suggests that pursuit entails the responsibility to travel far in order to ensure peace, not just attempting it when it is close and convenient. Abarbanel writes that love denotes trying to cultivate positive elements of peace, while pursuit requires patching up conflict after a fight. Rabbi Avraham Farisol suggests that love connotes pursuing peace with gentleness, while pursuit acknowledges that sometimes peace requires a little more grit and tenacity. Relatedly, Alshich writes that even when one party is being contentious, making it hard for peace to be attained, the requirement to pursue peace challenges us to keep working at it. Meiri writes that loving is about helping others find peace, pursuing is making sure our own relationships have peace. Ahavat Avot disagrees with the order, suggesting that loving is referencing peace in our own relationships, and only then can we consider pursuing it in terms of helping others.

Hillel’s next message flows from his emphasis on loving and pursuing peace: love all of mankind and bring them close to Torah. Here too the commentaries add inspiring nuances to Hillel’s message. Midrash Shmuel writes that we should love all humans because they are G-d’s creatures. Maharal adds that loving all humanity is an extension of the commandment to love G-d. By loving His creatures, we are also expressing our love to Him. According to Netziv, this applies even when they aren’t following the rules prescribed in the Torah.

Practically speaking, what strategies are there to love and pursue peace, love people and bring them close to Torah? Looking to Aharon as the exemplar, Avot DeRebbe Natan describes some of his methods. When he saw people behaving inappropriately, Aharon wouldn’t lecture them, reprove them, or even give inspiring speeches. His whole strategy was to greet them, say hello to them, and smile at them. Because Aharon noticed and accepted them for who they were as human beings, they were able to recognize their own capacity to do better and decided to change. Tiferet Yisrael also highlights that the only way to draw people close to Torah is to be kind and develop a relationship with them. Any strategy that doesn’t involve a positive personal connection will not succeed.

Aharon’s strategy dovetails with Carl Roger’s approach to psychotherapy in which he argued, based on a humanistic approach, that the therapist’s job is to demonstrate unconditional positive regard for his or her patients. This requires the therapist to accept them, listen to them, and treat them with dignity and respect no matter what they might have done. By providing this accepting context, the patient will be able to find within himself what he needs to change.

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Rabbi Dr. Mordechai Schiffman is an Assistant Professor at Yeshiva University’s Azrieli Graduate School, an instructor at RIETS, and the Straus Center for Torah and Western Thought. He graduated YU with a BA in psychology, an MS in Jewish Education from Azrieli and Rabbinic Ordination from RIETS, before attending St. John’s University for his doctorate in psychology. He has been on the rabbinic staff of Kingsway Jewish Center in Brooklyn, NY since 2010 and practices as a licensed psychologist in NY. His book “Psyched for Torah,” his academic and popular articles, as well as many of his lectures are accessible on his website, www.PsychedForTorah.com.