Coping with Complexity

Awareness of the wholeness in the Torah opens our eyes to the wholeness of the world.

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Rather, we must approach the whole Torah with open hearts, displaying enough patience and tenderness to remain in close relation to all of it, even amidst conflict and vulnerability. To look upon its beauty and blemishes, to engage with Torah openly and honestly is to cultivate real and sustainable shalom--the kind that can exist within individuals, in a society, and between nations.

"Peace" is a misleading translation of shalom, for it implies a lack of conflict, an absence of complications. In fact, the etymological root of shalom is shalem--"whole." Shalom is not a state of calm; it is wholeness--a process of opening oneself to the whole story and grappling with it. Thus, shalom is not peace itself, but the headwater of peace. When we avoid complexity and strive for a black-and-white understanding of reality, we erode the possibility of shalom. Seeing and struggling with the Torah's most disturbing faces--even when it elicits emotional responses like shame, anger, and sadness--can actually elucidate our deepest values and can help us identify our own ethical and moral orientations. Our productive indignation over unjust texts motivates us to take action on these issues in our own lives.

Wholeness in the World

The pursuit of global justice requires us to apply this notion to the world itself. We should strive to be aware of what is happening around the globe--the pleasant and the tragic, the heartwarming and the chilling. It can be excruciating to learn about the oppression, poverty, and epidemics that persist every day. This is why so many of us turn away. How else could the genocide in Darfur possibly be entering its seventh year without a stronger degree of international intervention? How else could millions of human beings die of hunger every year while others of us have excess? How else could diarrhea, the most preventable and treatable childhood illness, kill 4,000 children per day?  If we skip over those painful "texts" in newspapers and on the news, if we choose ignorant bliss over actual awareness, then we stunt the growth of shalom. And where there is no shalom, there can be no peace.

To practice shalom in the world, we must extend beyond a passive awareness of international issues. It is relatively easy for us to learn about and respond emotionally to events, but knowledge without action falls short of wholeness. Our real challenge is to integrate our intellectual and physical selves, to rise up and do something once we are aware. The world will not change, and neither will we, if we sit still, steeped in thoughts and feelings.

It may seem easier in the short term to ignore complexities, but this alienates us from reality. To neglect shalom weakens us as activists and undermines the wholeness of Torah, the world, other people, and ourselves.

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Sam Shonkoff

Sam Berrin Shonkoff is currently the Jewish student life coordinator at Stanford Hillel. He earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in Religious Studies from Brown University and has also studied in Jerusalem at Hebrew University, Pardes Institute and The Conservative Yeshiva.