Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Contrast vs Conflict

"...And he will turn the hearts of the fathers back to their children and the hearts of the children will reconcile with their fathers". So says the Prophet Malachi in the haftorah we read on the Shabbat prior to Pesach, Shabbat Hagadol. Who is he speaking about? Who will bring about this wonderful sense of family renewal?
In the end of days, prior to the arrival of the Mashiach, Malachi tell us, it is none other than Eliyahu the Prophet who will bring about the healing and restoration of shalom bayit, peace in the home and within the family.

That Eliyahu, as we know, is the messenger meant to herald the arrival of Mashiach I understand. After all he has lived, according to tradition, throughout our long and horrific national struggle. He knows our pain. He has witnessed it. It is for him to be the voice proclaiming the redemption. But what has Eliyahu to do with family reconciliation? After all he was the prophet who is most known for zealotry in the name of G-d. According to the Book of Kings, he is the prophet who championed the cause of true faith at a time when there were none to listen and virtually a whole nation worshipped Baal. Reconciliation is about compromise. Eliyahu disdained compromise. Reconciliation puts the focus on the persons, it augers a willingness to negotiate the ideal. Eliyahu was driven by the ideal. He had little use for negotiation.

And besides, we might well wonder, what gifts does Eliyahu have to bring about the family healing.

If we are going to understand the role of Eliyahu as the restorer of harmony between the generations I think we will have to look back to an earlier identity of the Prophet. According to tradition Eliyahu, at one time, had a different name. He was none other than Pinchas for whom we title this week's parsha and whose story is told therein. What do we know about Pinchas?

We know, of course, that Pinchas was the zealot who saved the People of Israel from an even greater catastrophe when he slew the Prince of the tribe of Shimon, Zimri, and the Princess of Midian, Kozbi as they publicly engaged in indecent acts. But what about Pinchas in the context of his family?

Pinchas was the grandson of Aharon, the first Kohen. And the son of Elazar, who took over as High Priest after Aharon died. Yet Pinchas was clearly unlike his ancestry. Aharon pursued peace even at the expense of compromise. We are told that he would reconcile enemies estranged by lying to each party about the desire of the other to plead for forgiveness, thereby bringing them together. He was the one who went so far as to collaborate with the People invested in the worship of the Golden Calf when he thought he might thereby minimize the damage. Aharon was one who always saw the 'ends' and would at times justify the 'means' to achieve them.

Pinchas was the opposite. First, he never really was a Kohen. He did not get status as a Priest until after the incident with Zimri and Kozbi. His father was a Kohen. His grandfather was a Kohen, indeed the first.But initially, he,Pinchas, was not. Elazar, his father, in tradition, married a convert. That alone would have rendered him unacceptable as a Kohen were it not for the special blessing of the Divine in this weeks reading.

But even more importantly, Pinchas's personality was different than those who preceded him. He would never compromise the 'means' no matter how noble the 'ends'. He was a 'kanai', a zealot. He was militant and fierce in pursuit of the ideal. When the Israelites go to war against Midian, (next week's parsha), its Pinchas who is commanded to lead them into battle. Elazar, his father, and Kohen Gadol, stays back in the camp, waiting to greet the returnees from war and instruct them. Its Pinchas who goes to fight.

Pinchas was oh so different than his fathers. So much so that we might have wondered if he was ever meant to be part of the priesthood they represented. Yet Hashem names him in the beginning of the parsha of this week "Pinchas son of Elazar son of Aharon the Priest...." Different yes! But still very much a part of the family and its calling!

Many years ago, when I was in my mid 30s, I had a personal crisis. I felt what seemed to be so many conflicting emotions inside. I could not reconcile the many forces that seemed to be vying for preeminence within. All I wanted was to find one simple truth that was mine to guide me. Instead I found complexity within and much ambivalence.

I was living in the States then and I decided to take a trip to Eretz Yisrael for a week in the hopes of finding an answer to my internal 'conflictedness'. I spent the week walking the streets of Yerushalayim waiting and hoping. And sure enough, unbidden, an answer came. And what it was took me by surprise.

I noticed as I walked how everything in Yerushalayim, and particularly in the Old City, is filled with complexity. The streets cover homes and communities destroyed thousands of years ago. They are cherished for their antiquity. Yet today new homes, raising families of the future sit on those ruins as if oblivious to the fact that they once belonged to the past. Stones that were laid by men and women with an agenda and a purpose then, now serve as playground for children playing soccer with no more purpose than to have fun with peers. The Old City contains the most fiercely committed religious groups, the four quarters of Christian, Muslim, Armenian and Jew, all in such close proximity. They live, not as one, on the contrary they are divided at the core, yet they live side by side.

I kept experiencing the dynamic of seeing things, which seemed so starkly different, co-existing in virtually the same space. And I came to realize that contrast is not the same as conflict. Things can be radically different from each other and yet be contained within the whole. I came to understand that I can have many strong and varying components within me and not need to reconcile them. On the contrary,the message of Yerushalayim is that the contrast gives the city its beauty. The work for me is, not to try to homogenize myself, but rather to learn to contain and celebrate the variety within and be at peace with it.

That to me is the story of Pinchas and his family. Pinchas was indeed unlike his father and grandfather, but that did not make him any less worthy to be the heir to the Priesthood and their family name.He evidenced that contrast does not indicate conflict. We can be different from each other, even in the most polar ways, and yet be part of the same community or family.

Its this Pinchas who is Eliyahu.Itsthis message that he will bring in the times of Mashiach to heal the wounds between parents and children. By dint of personal example, Eliyahu will teach parents and children that their differences do not reflect conflict. Rather they reflect the diversity of contrast, that which beautifies a people and a family.

In accepting that those, even if not like us, are part of us, we open the door for Mashiach. We engender the true Shalom, wholeness, balance, alignment, peace!

Shabbat Shalom

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