“Peace” as a Key Jewish Value
Some are presently contending that Judaism in general, and the Jewish people in particular, in their pursuit of autonomy, respect in the eyes of the world, and an independent state, are overly militant and give the impression that security rather than peace is their most important agenda. While politically, what might be required, at least temporarily, in order to continue to exist in the “hostile neighborhood” of the Middle East, may be less than ideal, Jewish liturgy advances the concept of peace as a primary and overarching value that is to be striven after in the long term, even if not immediately realizable.
In a Midrash (Devarim Rabba 5:15), R. Levi expresses the belief that since the word “Shalom” (peace) appears at the culmination of three central prayers in Jewish liturgy, peace obviously must be of great significance in Jewish thought:
…Said R. Levi: Peace is very beloved, because the final word of (key) blessings is nothing other than “Shalom”:
1) (The blessings associated with) Kriyat Shema end with “Shalom”: “Poreis Sukkat Shalom…”
2) Tefilla (the Silent Devotion) ends with “Shalom.”
3) Birchat Kohanim (the Priestly Blessing) ends with “VaYasem Lecha Shalom.” …
(Whereas the second and third examples offered by R. Levi incontrovertibly prove his point since every time these prayers are recited, the same word “Shalom” is said at the end of the final statement:
2) Blessed Art Thou, Lord our God, Who Blesses His People Israel in peace.
3) ]BeMidbar 6:26] “The LORD lift up His Countenance upon thee, and give thee peace.”
his first example appears to be more problematic. When the Shema prayer is rectied twice daily, morning and evening, three blessings—two before and one after--encompass the prayer. However, the proof text that R. Levi provides pertains only to prayers on Friday evening, and even then, “Shalom” is not the final word:
1) Blessed Art Thou, Lord our God, Who Spreads the shelter of Peace upon us, upon all of His People Israel, and upon Jerusalem.
Perhaps it could be said in R. Levi’s defense, that since the final terminology in this blessing are prepositional phrases clarifying over whom God’s Peace is spread, the key word in the blessing is “Peace.” A more theological answer might maintain that since Shabbat is “the essence of the World-to-Come,” even if all-encompassing peace is presently elusive, it is definitely a goal in the hopefully not-too-distant future.)
A conceptual basis for advancing “Shalom” as an ideal to which human beings ought to aspire, is the derivation of “Shalom” from its root “Shalem” (whole). “Wholeness,” or “Shleimut,” is generally associated with God Himself, a permutation of God’s “Oneness” ([Devarim 6:4] “Shema Yisrael, HaShem Elokeinu, HaShem Echad.”) Just as there are by definition no conflicting aspects to God’s Existence, resulting in His Being “One,” this also can be conceived of as Divine “Wholeness.”
While most human beings, due to their essential dualism arising from their physical and spiritual dimensions, fall far short of achieving “wholeness,” I have always found intriguing one verse in the bible that suggests that at least one person, and perhaps only for a short time, was in fact “whole”:
And Jacob came “Shalem” to the city of Shechem, which is in the land of Canaan, when he came from Paddan Aram; and encamped before the city.
Jacob’s example raises the question of whether he was a “one-off,” i.e., an exception, which supports the rule that human beings are simply incapable of ever being totally in tune with themselves to the point of achieving “wholeness,” or if in fact Jacob was capable of such an achievement, we are all able on some level to similarly be “whole,” were we to sufficiently work at it and, of course, circumstances allow for it.
Yet even if Jacob does set an example for the rest of us, getting entire societies to “get along” and overcome their inherent resentment towards one another so that there can be peace in the world, seems to be an even taller order. However, just because such a thing seems nigh-impossible, Jewish liturgy would appear to posit that personal as well as universal peace is a value worth striving after, and it should be conceived of as the proper end of all of our efforts throughout our lives.
In order to avoid the Rabbinic adage: (Yoma 80a) “If you try to grab too large a portion, you end up grabbing nothing,” it makes sense at the outset to operate on a small scale and then gradually expand one’s efforts. Peace has to begin within our families, and only then can it be extended to our communities, possibly envelope our entire society, and hopefully, even the nations of the world.
Rabbi Jack Bieler was ordained at the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary of Yeshiva University in 1974. He has been an administrator and faculty member of Orthodox Jewish day schools for over thirty years. He is a Jerusalem Fellow and has published and lectured widely on the philosophy of Modern Orthodox Jewish education. He has served as Rabbi of KMS since 1993 until his retirement in 2015. He blogs daily at https://yaakovbieler.
Rabbi Bieler has been a Panelist for Jewish Values Online for several years, responding to questions. You can find his answers by visiting Jewish Values Online, selecting the ‘View all panelists’ link, and clicking his name. A link will appear with his bio to show all answers he has submitted. Rabbi Bieler wrote one of the Blog entries selected as the three best for the first Quarter of 5779. You can see that entry on the front page of the Jewish Values Online Website.
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