The Jewish People offered Sihon, King of Amora, peace before they attacked and waged war against the Amorites. The Torah in this week’s portion of Chukas states, “Israel sent emissaries to Sihon, king of the Amorites, saying…” (Bamidbar 21:21).
About this the Medrish Tanchuma references a pasuk in Tehillim 37:3, “Trust in Hashem and do good; dwell in the land and nourish yourself with faithfulness.” It also writes in Tehillim 34:15, “Turn from evil and do good, seek peace and pursue it.” The Torah, in fact, does not command to run after mitzvos, “If a bird’s nest happened to be before you on the road…” (Devarim 22:6). “If you see the donkey of someone you hate…” (Shemos23:4). “If you see the donkey…” (Devarim 23:4). “When you reap your harvest…” (Devarim 24:20). “When you harvest…” (Devarim 24:21). “When you come into the vineyard of your fellow…” (Devarim 23:25). By all these [mitzvos] if they come to you, you are obligated to fulfill them, but don’t run after them. However, peace you shall seek out from where you are and run after in some other place. And so the Jews did it even though Hashem said to them, “Begin to drive him out, and provoke war with him” (Devarim 2:24), still they ran after peace, as it says “Israel sent emissaries etc.”
The Be’ur HaAmarim explains what was bothering the medrish. According to this edition of the medrish two pesukim were initially quoted with the intent of asking why the Jews felt compelled to first offer them (The Amorites) peace when Hashem told them, “To insight a war” as we find in the beginning of Devarim. For this reason, the medrish brings two verses, for by “Trust in Hashem and do good” it writes “when dwelling in the land,” meaning, with this one can live in the land, in your spot and you don’t have to roam in the land and run after it (mitzvos). But by seeking peace it writes, “and you should run after it” even if it does not reach your hands. This now makes sense why they first asked for peace; for in this matter one must go beyond the letter of the law more than any other mitzva, and this is the will of Hashem. When Hashem commanded to wage war, that was just giving us permission, for it is not forbidden [to wage war with them] unlike Edom, Moav and Ammon. And in truth it was also the intent of Hashem that they would first approach them with peace to teach us the importance of running after peace, for if He just commanded about making peace, we would not know that for the sake of peace one has to go beyond the letter of the law. (Click here for Hebrew text)
This is quite an astonishing medrish! One would think that one should have an attitude to run after and seek out mitzvos instead of just letting them come to you. Do you realize the value of a mitzvah? The Mesilas Yesharim in the end of the first chapter writes about mitzvos “Behold, after knowing all this, we will immediately realize the grave obligation of the commandments upon us and the preciousness of the Divine service which lies in our hands. For these are the means which lead us to the true perfection. Without them, this state will not be attained in the least.” A mitzvah is more valuable than all the precious gems in the world put together. It has eternal reward, so wouldn’t you think one should run after and seek out mitzvos? For example everyone should become a farmer, there are so many mitzvos involved in farming! Yet it would seem to be a lack of trust and faith in Hashem if one would purposefully create and put himself into situations where he would have to fulfill a certain mitzva. Rather, a person should have the proper faith in Hashem that He will bring him mitzvos when he is deserving to have them, and when he gets the opportunity, he should do them with all his intent and effort. Of course, Hashem surrounds us with mitzvos everyday, and we have to open our eyes to reach and fulfill them, but we don’t have to pursue mitzvos that are not but for the will of Hashem for us to perform, at least at this moment or maybe ever. Forcing a mitzvah, when you shouldn’t be doing it, is not only not a mitzva but a lack of trust and faith in Hashem that he will provide us with plenty of opportunities to perform mitzvos at the proper time and place for each individual with their own unique purpose in life.
However, when it comes to peace, one is expected to run after peace as much as possible. Don’t wait for the other party to approach you. You must always have the attitude to run after and seek peace. Hashem allows us to wage war, when needed, for whatever appropriate reasons brought down in halacha. But why doesn’t the Torah command us to always be peaceful if peace is so important that it’s worth running after, and it’s not considered a lack of faith in Hashem if you wait for peace to come to you?
It would seem that the medrish is teaching us an incredible insight into human psychology. If Hashem would have made pursuing peace a mitzvah then a person would be stymied to really run after peace since he is bound by the letter of the law. Only because Hashem expects us to go beyond the letter of the law, the letter of the law says you are allowed to wage war if needed, but one is expected to act above and beyond the letter of the law, and if he realizes this expectation then he’ll put in more efforts to rise to the occasion and stand up to such a lofty challenge such as pursuing peace.
This expectation of pursuing peace does not only apply to war but in our day to day lives. We as individuals are expected to go all out to pursue peace and try to avoid fighting with others, or at the very least go out of our way to initiate a resolution and try to absolve a skirmish when it starts, whether it’s between you and your wife, friend, a fellow Jew, or anyone else, one should go beyond the letter of the law, beyond what’s expected to pursue and keep the peace.