Primo Levi, recently released from Auschwitz, recalls a savvy confidante warning him, “The war is not yet over — not for you.” Indeed, on July 4, 1946, the few remaining Jews in the Polish town of Kielce were herded together and clubbed, stoned, or stabbed to death. In 1946 as well, Jewish survivors elsewhere languished in Displaced Persons camps with nowhere to go. Even here, 64 percent of American Jews claimed personal familiarity with anti-Semitism. 1946 was not a very good year.
How amazing, then, that in 1946, the leading book on the New York Times best-seller list was by a rabbi from Boston, Joshua Loth Liebman, and entitled “Peace of Mind.”
“This is the gift that God reserves for special proteges,” Liebman wrote. “Talent and beauty God gives to many. Wealth is commonplace, fame not rare. But peace of mind — that is the fondest sign of God’s love.”
Peace of mind is an inner virtue: not something we gain from life’s experiences, but something we take to them, to help us make it through them. Think of Aaron, this week, who suffers the sudden death of his two oldest sons. The Torah defends the event as divine punishment for offering “alien fire,” an obscure sin that neither the Talmud nor the commentators explain very satisfactorily. I read the account as a case of “grasping at straws,” like Job’s friends who imagine all suffering must be deserved. It isn’t. When inexplicable tragedies strike — through hurricanes, earthquakes, and such — we too call them “acts of God,” without really meaning it.
What matters, however, is not the logic we supply but the response we manage to muster. Aaron, the Torah says, is silent. He endures the loss and moves on.
With all our sophistication on dealing with bereavement, we tend nowadays to fault him for not venting his anger, railing at God, crying foul. I don’t necessarily recommend such stoic silence, but I do marvel at the Torah’s picture of Aaron the father who takes even the tragic death of his children with equanimity.
By contrast, when King David’s son Absalom dies (while in armed revolt against him, no less), David laments, “Oh my son Absalom, Absalom my son, would that I had died instead of you.” What do we learn from Aaron that we do not see in David?
Every biblical hero is painted with faults, but also redeeming virtues. Abraham almost sacrifices his son, but is faithful; Moses loses his temper, but is humble; and Aaron? Aaron’s failure is his role in making the golden calf. What is his distinctive virtue?
From Passover to Shavuot, we read Pirkei Avot, the rabbinic book of wisdom par excellence. This week’s installment says, “Be among the disciples of Aaron, loving peace and pursuing it.” Aaron’s genius, apparently, lies in the attainment of peace.
But not just any peace.
We normally think of peace as something external, peace between individuals or nations. But Aaron’s peace is different — not peace without, but peace within, the kind of inner peace that allows Aaron the father to go on in life despite the trauma of two lost children. Aaron had mastered Liebman’s peace of mind.
Sooner or later, we all discover our lives spinning out of control. We wake up one day with a rare disease that we thought only other people get; a drunk driver barrels into us and cripples us for life. There are lesser crises, too: we lose a big promotion; discover that someone we love has lied to us; undergo a miscarriage; suffer mid-life crises and problems with aging. How in the world do we get through all that?
Only with what Liebman describes and Aaron epitomizes: the peace of mind that sees us through our difficult days. “Loving peace of mind and pursuing it” is the only armor we have against life’s inevitable trials. It was Aaron’s secret and it can be ours as well.