Shalom, means “peace,” yes, but even more. Shalom means “harmony.” Shalom means “wholeness.” I want to speak about shalom tonight, and about what it means to love it and to pursue it. I love that Temple Mount Sinai chose Rodef Shalom, “Pursuer of Peace,” as the name of the award it bestows on special occasions. I thought it might be fun, and interesting, to explore the roots of that idea. And, as has become my way especially in the last several years, I thought to do so through the lens of Jewish mysticism, as we learn from the words of a modern-day Hasidic master known as the Netivot Shalom.
The Netivot Shalom, whose given name was Shalom Noach Berezovsky, lived from 1911 until 2000. Born in Europe, he made aliyah in 1935, and was largely responsible for preserving a particular line of Hasidic teaching associated with the town of Slonim, in modern-day Belarus. His magnum opus, Netivot Shalom, is a guide to the Torah, the Jewish holidays, and the spiritual and ethical life. Among its many treasures are his reflections on Pirkei Avot, the “Ethics of the Fathers,” the book from which we get the phrase Rodef Shalom.
In our tradition, the exemplar of peace-pursuing is Aaron. And so the imperative to be peace-loving, peace-pursuing people is couched in a lesson about Aaron: “Be disciples of Aaron, loving peace and pursuing peace, loving all creatures and drawing them near to Torah.” On which Berezofsky notes that “peace is not merely the absence of strife. Peace is a positive presence. It can be sought out. Doing so, in fact, is really what life is all about.”
The Netivot Shalom asks the question, “Why are we here?” This is his answer:
We are here to know and realize that we are all one within God. Indeed, there is nothing but God, no reality apart from the divine reality. All created beings – people, animals, plants, even inanimate objects – all exist because God exists. They – we – exist within the One who is the Heart of All Being. That’s what we mean when say, in the Sh’ma, that Adonai Echad, “the Eternal is One.”
So our goal is “to know and realize that we are all one within God.” Well and good. If only it were that easy. But it’s hard, as the Netivot Shalom explains:
We are tripped up in achieving our goal, tripped up by appearances. Specifically, we get caught up in this world which appears to be populated by separate beings, all existing independently of one another. But one day appearances will melt away and we’ll see it all for what it is: God. In the words of the prophet: “The earth will be as full of divine awareness as the sea is full of water.”
For our teacher, the Netivot Shalom, that is shalom. Peace is not the mere absence of strife, but the awareness of our essential oneness, of harmony. Shalom is simply this: knowing that you, and everyone and everything around you, are One. Echad.
It may sound a little woo-woo, even a little hippy-dippy, to say this. “We are stardust, we are golden, we are billion-year-old carbon,” and all that. All I can say is that it is the truth of my own experience, a truth in whose light I try to live each day.
If peace is all of these things, then loving it might be understood to exist a bit in tension with pursuing it. That is to say, one might be satisfied to simply contemplate the unity of all things, lovingly, at the expense of making unity and harmony more present in this real, and really messy, world. This tension between the appreciation of peace and its pursuit, between contemplation and action, between what some have called the priestly and prophetic sides of our faith, fascinates me. I’ve spoken about that tension over the years, sometimes casting it as the tension between the navel-gazing and the rabble-rousing impulses within Judaism.
It is a theme that has been on my mind for even longer than I had remembered. In preparing for next week’s move, I’ve been thumbing through my file cabinets, figuring out what comes with me, what stays for Rabbi Zeidman, and what goes to the recycling bin. In the process, I came across a paper written almost twenty years ago, for my seminary course in modern theology. The assignment was to review a work of contemporary Jewish theology, and I’d chosen Arthur Green’s Seek My Face, Speak My Name. Now Green is a mystic whose sense of the unity of all things seems to me to be no less refined than that of Rabbi Berezofsky. And, by way of critiquing what twenty-seven-year-old me perceived to be Green’s lack of focus when it came to stirring his audience to action, I wrote:
Perhaps this shortcoming is a result of Green’s monism. If Oneness transcends good and evil, it’s hard to get worked up about morality in the same way that one gets excited about the contemplation of Creation.
On that sentence, my teacher wrote in the margin: “You are absolutely right.”
Now Rabbi Green has become one of my favorite teachers in the years since I wrote that paper, and present-day me would be less quick to judge him for not solving the tension. In the words of another of my favorite teachers, the Hibbinger Rav, Shabtai Zissel ben Avraham (better known by his stage-name, Bob Dylan): “Ah, but I was so much older then; I’m younger than that now.” Green knew then what I’ve learned through experience: that exhorting people to action isn’t nearly as powerful or effective as working alongside them.
The place where the mystical Oneness of Creation and the hard work of Redemption meet is in the lives of individual creatures, no different than myself, not separate from myself, each searching for wholeness and meaning, for freedom and justice. Temple Mount Sinai, the Jewish community of El Paso more generally, and our beautiful and unique city even more generally, have been the landscape within which I’ve learned this lesson, again and again. Whether in Torah study or meditation, in a parish hall or City Hall, my aspirations — which I am the first to acknowledge I’ve met only imperfectly — have been the same. Those aspirations are reflected in the words I spoke on September 18, 1998, at my ceremony of installation:
May we shed the walls that separate us from each other and from Truth, and may we build the bridges that make us one community.
It was my prayer then; it remains my prayer now.