Blessings of Peace
In a world filled with continual violence, where killings of Americans, Israelis and Iraqis by horrific means have become, to our great sorrow, daily items in our news – we ask ourselves: When will peace come? When will we be able to turn on our television sets, read our newspapers, and learn that no more bloodshed has occurred, that former enemies are speaking to each other, and parents can go to sleep at night knowing that they will find their children alive in the morning?
Judaism has all those aspirations for peace – and more. In our parashah this week, amidst many varied topics, we find the three-fold blessing with which God commands the ancient priests to bless the people. It is a blessing which has been incorporated into the weekly life of everyday Jews throughout the world – when they bless their children on Friday evening – and into the daily life of Jews living in Israel during morning prayers. Its structure is simple, but its meaning is profound:
“May the Lord bless you and guard you.
May the Lord cause his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you.
May the Lord lift up his face to you and place upon you peace.” (Numbers 6:24-27)
While some of the blessing’s meaning is obvious (a prayer for prosperity, protection and closeness to God), much of the blessing is open to different interpretations, with which rabbinic literature is rich. (See Etz Hayim Humash pp. 803-805)
The blessing closes with a prayer for peace – shalom. When looking into the classic Brown, Driver and Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament – we find that in the Bible alone, shalom has very varied and rich meanings: completeness, safety, soundness, security, welfare, health, prosperity, peace and quiet, tranquility, contentment, friendship, and peace from war. Shalom looks outward to the world around us, and inward to the world within us.
Peace is such an essential value in Jewish thought that three of our central prayers, all of which are recited at least once daily – the Amidah, the Kaddish and Birkat Hamazon (Grace after Meals) all conclude with a prayer for shalom. In addition, the Mishnah – the body of Jewish law which forms the basis for the Talmud – ends with a blessing for peace: “Rabbi Shimon ben Halafta said: The Blessed Holy One found no vessel which could hold Israel’s blessing except shalom, for it is written, ‘May the Lord grant His people strength; may the Lord bless His people with shalom.'”
Blessings for peace abound in Jewish liturgy, and peace is extolled throughout rabbinic literature. Despite the situation in which Israel currently finds itself, Jews are a peace-loving people, and Judaism is a peace-seeking tradition. May we soon see the day when God’s aspirations for us will be achieved – when we will feel the light of God’s presence, and when we will be blessed with completeness, security, health, prosperity, tranquility, contentment, friendship, and peace from war – that is… shalom.
The publication and distribution of the JTS KOLLOT: Voices of Learning commentary has been made possible by a generous gift from Sam and Marilee Susi.