Greetings of Peace

Vayeshev By :  Matthew Berkowitz Former Director of Israel Programs, JTS Posted On Dec 16, 2006 / 5767

Greetings and farewells are significant in Jewish tradition. Appropriately enough, the word “shalom” meaning “peace” is often the thread that ties many of these expressions together. Sometimes, it is a simpleshalom; and other times, a warm embrace is accompanied by “shalom aleichem,” meaning “peace be upon you.” To which one responds by reversing the greeting “aleichem shalom” (“to you, may there be peace”).

Another tradition is derived from the Talmud Yerushalmi which turns to the Book of Ruth as a source for its teaching. There we learn, “They [the sages] mandated that a person should ask of the welfare of his fellow human by employing the name of God as it is said, ‘Boaz came from Beit Lehem and he said to the reapers, ‘May God be with you.'” (Talmud Yerushalmi, Berakhot 9:12). Invoking both peace and God’s presence reflect the sacredness involved with greeting and parting from one’s fellow. These are transitional moments in which we encounter not only an acquaintance, friend, or family member, but more significantly, we stand before the image of God. This week’s Torah reading, Parashat Va–yeishev, although filled with the jealousness and enmity between Joseph and his brothers, also lends itself to a teaching concerning greetings.

Genesis 37:4 relates, “Joseph’s brothers saw that their father loved him more than the others, so they hated him and could not utter peace (l’shalom).” So deeply jealous were Joseph’s brothers of Jacob’s favoritism that they did not even have the patience to ask of Joseph’s welfare, nor were they capable of bringing the word shalom into their shared space. The Vilna Gaon, Rabbi Eliyahu ben Shlomo Zalman Kramer (1720–1797), explains this verse in light of a teaching from the Babyloninan Talmud which relates, “one who takes leave of his friend should say, ‘Go to peace’ (lekh l’shalom) rather than ‘go in peace’ (lekh b’shalom)” (Babylonian Talmud, Berakhot 64a). For Jethro told Moses to go “to peace” and he went and succeeded in his mission; and David told Avshalom to go “in peace” and the latter stumbled. While the difference between these two expressions seems relatively minor — the interchange between the Hebrew letters bet and lamed — one cannot but admire the rabbinic advice derived from a sensitive reading of the text.

Practically speaking, letters are often closed with the expression “b’shalom,” “in peace.” Clearly, the Vilna Gaon and the rabbis of the Talmud give us important food for thought in adopting the alternative closing of “l’shalom,” “to peace.” My own rabbinic interpretation takes this a step deeper. What after all is the difference between the prepositions, “b” and “l” in Hebrew? Whereas the bet often signifies “in,” a lamed denotes “to.” The practical difference then is between passive and active, static versus dynamic. To wish someone that they go “to” peace, is to bless them with a journey — that their life continually move in the direction of wholeness. B’shalom lacks recognition of action. It is as if the goal has been achieved; one remains idle. May we internalize more than a linguistic lesson on greetings and farewells. As we sing Shalom Aleichem to the angels of Shabbat this coming Friday night, may we be reminded of the importance of peace between and amongst friends and family members. Only by learning this important lesson from Parashat Va–yeishev, may we truly merit the light of Hanukkah.

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