I’ve been wondering about the Barack Obama Nobel Peace Prize thing for a while now. Either Obama has achieved incredible believability in record time or they’ve changed the Nobel Prize requirement from “creating change” to “pledging to make a change”. Obama’s “audacity of hope” clearly got the Norwegians hoping.
People like Tobias Asser (1911 Jewish Peace Prize winner), Sir Joseph Rotblat (most recent Jewish Peace Prize winner) or Ada Yonath (also Jewish, this year’s chemistry laureate) all worked for decades to earn their Noble accolade. Obama was cited for the prize a mere ten days into his presidency. When he jets off to collect the prize in Oslo, his country is likely to still be at war on two fronts.
What’s more intriguing than the question of why Obama made the grade is the question of why so few Jews have ever received it. 22% of all Nobel Prize winners are Jewish (that’s not bad coming from less than 1% of the World’s population). We have impressive numbers of Nobel laureates for medicine, chemistry, physics and economics, but only nine Peace Prize recipients!
That’s strange. Jews have always been peace activists. Our belief system pivots on peace, we end our daily prayers with a plea for peace and our Sages teach that the G-d gave us the Torah for one sole purpose: to bring peace to the world. How, then, were we overlooked in the Peace Prize race?
You can solve part of the mystery by referring to this week’s Torah portion. After the Great Flood, we’re told, people banded together to build a great new civilization. Earlier generations had undone their society through strife, jealousy and simple disrespect and G-d had destroyed them. Their descendants figured they could fix those ills by building a single society, built around a massive iconic tower that would always remind everyone of this ideal. Babel’s citizens wanted peace.
Strangely, G-d disapproved. He swooped down, thwarted their plans, mixed up their languages (they had all spoken Hebrew until then) and made sure they could never work together again.
Does G-d have something against peace?
A closer inspection of this story reveals a deeply profound message. Yes, they wanted peace; yes they wanted to live in harmony; yes they dreamed of a united humankind. But they wanted it for the wrong reasons. In outlining their plan, their leaders announced: “Let us build a city, with a tower reaching the Heavens... so that we will not be dispersed across the Earth”. Sounds noble enough, doesn’t it?
It would have been, but they inserted one corrupt phrase into their proposal: “Let us build a city… to make a name for ourselves”.
If you want peace, chase peace. When you pursue peace because you want to make a name for yourself, to leave a legacy, to earn the title “Man of Peace”, you’ll never achieve peace. In fact, you will likely create terrible conflicts.
Peace stretches beyond individuals and their egos. Peace is the foundation of Life itself. To reach peace, you need to forget yourself.
This story and, in fact, all of Torah has taught us one fundamental lesson: Jews are into peace, not prizes.