The Good Life
By Braha Bender
Violence hurts even when it isn’t directed specifically towards you. As they say in the west, you don’t pull out the gun if you aren’t prepared to use it. One of the benefits of living a Torah lifestyle is physical and emotional safety.
Although living a Torah lifestyle is rewarded by spiritual pleasures that last for eternity, keeping the Torah also promises a plethora of terrific consequences in this world. These consequences are not rewards for our good behaviour. They are the ripple effects that our choices have on the circumstances of our lives.
One of the positive consequences that was to take place during biblical times was, “I will provide peace in the land, and you will lie down with none to frighten you; I will cause wild beasts to withdraw from the land, and a sword will not cross your land.” (VaYikra-Leviticus 26:6) The country was to fill with prosperity and peace.
But even during peaceful times, sometimes neighbouring nations at war wanted to pass through the land to reach their targeted enemy. The dangers of armies passing through the country was so great that one account depicts King Yoshiyahu (Josiah) attempting to stop the Egyptian army from passing through Israel to reach Assyria: “King Yoshiyahu went to confront him, and [Pharaoh Neco] killed him in Meggido when he saw him.” (Melachim Beis-Kings II 23:29) The hazards of playing host to aggression were very real.
Besides the fact that the nation itself would not be engaged in military conflict, keeping the Torah ensured that no “sword of peace” would pass through the land. That meant that no other nations setting off to war with Israel’s neighbours would have their troops travel through the country. Israel would be free of all local tremors of violence, even violence directed against other peoples.
These Torah promises map out what it means to live “the good life”. The advertising industry is bent on convincing us that “the good life” means constantly upgrading to a newer, faster car, but Torah applies more meaningful standards. One of the primary elements of a good life in Torah thought is safety. On a national level, this is expressed by freedom from war and violence. On a personal level, safety means relationships free of aggression and attack.
The dangers of the “sword of peace” exist on a personal level as well. Peace, closeness, and harmony between people create a high comfort level. But it’s just when people begin to feel most comfortable in a relationship that little jibes, occasional sarcastic comments, and witty cynicism can become a normal part of the atmosphere. The peace of the relationship can become host to all sorts of passing, humorously-intended aggression.
Sometimes humour can hurt. Sarcasm can leave an emptiness that love should have filled. Witty cynicism can be funny, but applied to the everyday realities of life, it can make things look sad and bleak. Call me a party pooper. Call me an old foggy. But it’s true.
It’s not easy to have the courage to speak openly and honestly about vulnerable emotions and thoughts, but a relationship of true peace needs you to. Filling the empty space with too much sarcasm, cynicism, and vacuous humour, no matter how amusing, invites a certain lack of safety and closeness. Expressing emotions isn’t safe when they are made fun of. Saying “it’s just a joke” doesn’t replace the sense of safety and happiness that was lost.
Living a Torah lifestyle includes many guidelines about how to speak, when to speak, and with whom speaking about various topics is permitted or forbidden. For example, when emotions are truly overwhelming, venting is permitted, but only to someone with the objectivity and maturity to remember that everything you are saying while venting is subjective, one-sided, and not to be taken seriously. These guidelines are not suffocating, they are liberating. They create a society free of fear, free to enjoy close, warm relationships as individuals and as a community.
But more than that, these laws indicate a certain general direction to grow in. This direction is one of sensitivity to others, thoughtful speech, and good listening. Humour is a definite Torah value (my husband’s rabbi says that in the Talmud there is a joke on every page), but warmth, happiness, and closeness is an even greater value. One is in service to the other.
Even when we are not explicitly fighting with someone we love, we should not play host to any sort of negativity or aggression. Let us speak sensitively to each other, and enjoy the truly good Torah life of rich friendships, happy families, and wonderful marriages.