This past weekend we took Elishai to the Franklin Institute to see the Art of the Brick exhibit (Finally), and since we had some time, we went to the Genghis Khan exhibit as well. They did this cool thing where we were each given a card with the name of an historical person on it to carry to kiosks at each exhibit, to learn what happened to that person and how they were connected to the rise of the Mongolian Empire. One of the characters struck me; a soldier, he becomes a guard for the eight white tents after Khan’s death; a kind of portable mausoleum that his sons continued to guard dozens of generations later. I thought it was so interesting to juxtapose this very peaceful image—these white tents on the fields—with the people who guarded them, descendants of the soldiers who rode out to conquer hundreds of years before.
It raises the question of what it means when we talk of peace. What does peace really mean? Does it mean an absence of violence? Does it mean quiet? Does it mean order? The Hebrew word is, of course, Shalom, and it comes up very specifically in this week’s parasha, as the so-called Priestly Benediction is introduced. We are told that the Cohanim will bless the people with a three-fold benediction, which we know very well, and the last line is, יִשָּׂא יהוה פָּנָיו אֵלֶיךָ, וְיָשֵׂם לְךָ שָׁלוֹם ("Yissā Adhōnāy pānāw ēlekhā viyāsēm lekhā shālōm." Literally: May Adonai lift up God’s face to you and place upon you peace. And this blessing is given that God may be linked to Israel, given in the context that Israel is preparing for war.
It’s an interesting blessing given in an interesting context. So what kind of peace are we talking about?
I think this is important because we talk about peace—personal peace, inner peace, as well as national peace—often without context. When we talk about peace in our cities, the idea of peace cannot merely be a return to homes and a restoration of order. Peace is absent due to a lack of justice. When we talk about achieving some kind of personal peace, does that mean acceptance of our lot and our lives, or does that mean somehow removing disruptive experiences or destructive tendencies from our lives? Or is it really code to mean being left alone? And do I even need to speak of the issues of international strife, especially surrounding Israel? That the various notions of peace—not treaties and agreements, but peace—are very much out of alignment.
Shalom itself comes from the word shalem, which means to be whole, or complete. In the context given, I would argue that the priests, by making the blessing over Israel, and linking Israel to God, are making Israel whole and complete, and the covenant with God whole and complete. Peace, then, is not about mere quiet or the absence of violence; it’s about wholeness and completeness.
In many ways, that is a much bigger ask; feeling whole, restoring our communities to wholeness, our world to wholeness. For our cities, that’s as much about economic opportunity and healthy schools as it is about a night without violence. For our world and for Israel, it’s not just about no rocket fire or tunnels, but that we as a people and Israel as a nation are accepted and treated equally in the community of nations. And for us as individuals? What would it mean to be whole? Not to excise our hurt but heal it; not to accept injustice but learn from our experience?
The Sefat Emet wrote that the meaning of this verse is that wholeness is the focal point of all truths; that a single mitzvah done in joy contains all goodness. We could look at our hectic lives, and the violence in our streets, and the rockets above Israel and say: none of it is enough, and despair. Or we could be like guardians of white tents, creating and protecting the wholeness—even the smallest wholeness—in the world around us and in our lives. May in our doing so, God’s face is found in all our encounters, and we come to real Shalom.