When I was a child, I was a bit of a handful to deal with. I often got in trouble at school. In fact, my parents joked that there was a seat saved in the principal’s office just for me, since I was there so regularly. In my Sophomore year of high school, I was placed in the regular Hebrew class. I wanted to be in the honors class, but the school did not let me move up. So it is fair to say that I had a negative attitude in general in the class. But, my grades were excellent and I was trying to prove that I should be moved up. At the same time, my teacher, Mrs. Mizrahi (not her real name) and I were often at odds with each other. I felt she was disrespectful to me and picked on me and singled me out for misbehaving, and she thought that I was misbehaving and was rude and disrespectful.
One day, I was joking around with a friend, when Mrs. Mizrahi called me out for talking in class. At this point in the year, I had had enough and I lost it. I started yelling at her about how much she picked on me and that it was not fair. After my tirade, she just pointed her finger towards the door, where I was to exit. On the way out, she tried saying something and I cut her off with one last rude remark. Of course this was unacceptable behavior for me, regardless of my claims, and I was punished by the school and I was removed from the class. I moved away after that year so it would be some time before we saw each other again.
Nine years later, I was attending a faculty meeting at a synagogue where I was just starting as the Youth Director. I sat at the conference table, and I immediately recognized Mrs. Mizrahi sitting across the table from me. Suddenly, I was a kid again, and I was feeling a lot of those things I felt when she was my teacher. I had been holding a grudge for nine years. And I finally had a chance to confront her. After the meeting, she turned to me and asked, “Where you a student of mine?” I replied, “Yes.” She then smiled, winked, and said, “You gave me some trouble, right?” And I was totally diffused. We quickly developed a very nice relationship and two years later she was a guest at my wedding.
Our Parsha, Shoftim, talks about war and peace. The Sfas Emes teaches that all of our wars should be in pursuit of peace. So we should approach and strive for peace. The Torah begins to explain, “When thou drawest nigh unto a city to fight against it, then proclaim peace unto it/כִּי-תִקְרַב אֶל-עִיר, לְהִלָּחֵם עָלֶיהָ--וְקָרָאתָ אֵלֶיהָ, לְשָׁלוֹם.” The Midrash picks up on this thread that the Sfas Emes explicitly pulled out by discussing the great power of, and desire for, peace. The Midrash in Deuteronomy Rabbah states “A human, if he does evil to his fellow, it doesn’t ever move from his heart. But, The Holy Blessed One is not like this, rather, it was that the Israelites were in Egypt and the Egyptians subjegated them with mortar and bricks, and after all of that evil that they did to Israel, the Torah worries for them and says [in next week’s parsha], ‘thou shalt not abhor an Egyptian, because thou wast a stranger in his land.’ Rather, you should chase after peace, as it says [Ps. 34:15] ‘Seek peace and chase after it/בַּקֵּשׁ שָׁלוֹם וְרָדְפֵהוּ.”
My teacher had every right to be angry with me for what I had done. Yet, she did what I could not do in that moment; what is so hard for many of us to do: She decided to take the path of peace. In this month of Elul, let us try to be more like my teacher and as God is described in our midrash. Think of those relationships that could flourish if that was the path we decided to take. Of course this is hard, and it may be human nature to hold the grudge. But let us try to be better. Let us chase after peace. And may we see that peace come in our days.
Rabbi Ezra Balser has been the rabbi at Temple Beth Sholom since July 1, 2016. He received his “smicha” (ordination) in June 2017 from Hebrew College while also earning a Master’s Degree in Jewish Studies. He has also received the iCenter's Certification in Israel Education.