Naso | Rabbi Michael Siegel | June 6, 2020
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Sometime in the 8th Century, a silversmith etched Hebrew letters on a small piece of thin, pounded silver. It was then folded and presumably worn either as jewelry or pinned to the person’s clothing. This tiny sliver of silver contains the earliest example of Hebrew writing in the world today. For those who would deny an ancient Jewish presence in Israel, it places the Israelites in our land exactly as the Bible portrays. But the words that were chosen for this silver piece have much to tell us as well. What would have been deemed so important that someone would go to the trouble and expense of having them etched on silver? When the archeologists painstakingly unfolded the nearly 3,000-year-old discovery, it revealed words familiar to us. These words, which continue to resonate, come from this week’s Torah reading:
Yivarechecha et Adonai Veyishmerecha
May God bless you and guard you
Yaer Adonai Panav Elecha Vechunecah
May God light up His face to you and grant grace to you
Yisa Adonai Panav Elecha V’yasem Lecha Shalom
May God lift up the His face toward you and give you peace (Numbers 6:23-27)
Now, we do not know the owner of this silver piece, nor its purpose.
Was it an amulet, something worn to protect the wearer?
Was it a wish?
Was it a prayer for the future?
We cannot possibly know the answer to any of these questions. But what we can be certain about is the power those ancient words of Torah held for our ancient brother or sister, because they continue to resonate for us.
This person, like us, appreciated the laddering of the blessings.
3 words that led to 5 words, blessing upon blessing that led to 7 words, the
covenantal number between God and Israel through the Sabbath on the 7th day, and ultimately with all humanity through the creation itself.
But there is something else that we can be certain about. The ancient owner of this silver piece had a very different understanding of the meaning of Shalom than we do. This distinction, I believe, offers us an important insight and lesson during this tumultuous time.
How is it possible that Shalom could mean anything besides hello, goodbye, or peace? Shalom is the best-known Hebrew word. Nevertheless, the meaning of peace in English is not the same as Shalom in Hebrew. In some ways, the best-known Hebrew word is also the least understood Hebrew word.
Peace is based on the word Pais in Old French and is understood as freedom from civil disorder, absence of war, freedom from disturbance, tranquility and calm. Peace in English describes a state of being, whereas Shalom describes a harmonious state of relationships.
You see, the Hebrew language is based off of a series of 3-letter root words, or Shorashim. To understand a word’s meaning, one must understand its Shoresh. The root word of Shalom is Shin, Lamed, Mem which means either whole or complete. To understand the deeper meaning here, we need to return to the creation story which is, at its essence, an epic tale of God creating order out of Chaos:
The Seventh day, the Sabbath Day, is the first day in the creation where there is no more chaos; where the world is at balance. It is whole, complete within itself: Shalem.
This is why, when we offer someone a Sabbath Greeting, it is most common to say Shabbat Shalom – May you know the harmony and balance of the first Sabbath. While we understand Shalom as peace, as the absence of strife, the wearer of that tiny piece of silver thought of Shalom as the harmonious balance that aligns us with God. This difference prompted one of the great Spanish Rabbis of the Golden Age, Isaac Abarbanel, to write: That is why God is called Peace, because it is He who binds the world together and orders things according to their particular character and posture. For when things are in their proper order, peace will reign. The opposite of peace is not war, but chaos and imbalance. Something akin to our present age!
This has been one of the most tumultuous weeks in the history of this country. Thousands upon thousands of people have taken to the streets after the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis Policemen who choked him to death while he cried: “I can’t breathe.” The video recording shook not only America but the world to its core. We cannot unsee the abject racism, the brutality of those meant to protect us, treating a man as something less than human. The reaction across the country and around the world has been swift. While there has been looting and destruction which remains inexcusable, the fact is that the vast majority of the protests have
been remarkably peaceful. I marched with 10,000 others this week in Bronzeville in a demonstration led by clergy of every religion, organized by our friend Pastor Chris Harris. The people walked with a single purpose, and the police could not have been more helpful and supportive. As we walked, there were different chants. As the people shouted: “No Peace, No Justice,” I wondered to myself what the word peace meant to those who chanted. Is it the ethereal notion of Isaiah, the lion lying down with the lamb? What does that peace look like? Is it peace, as in an end of protest? Or is it something more?
Here, I believe that the word Shalom has more to say to us as a way forward than the expansive notion of world peace. If we understand Shalom as completion; wholeness; as balance; as harmony; then we see how far we are today from that. We have heard the statistics so many times. The disproportionate number of men of color in prison; the disproportionate nature of wealth distribution in this country where a small percentage of Americans hold most of its wealth. Here in Chicago, African Americans make up 30% of the population, and their unemployment rate is 3 times that of whites. Moreover, the value of Black-owned businesses is 1/12 that of whites. The economic impact of the coronavirus has only deepened the
But it is when you walk the streets that you see the disharmony in our society. Here, in one of the greatest cities in our country, the effects of segregation are everywhere. In the schools, in the businesses, in the homes, on the streets. Walk through the streets of the North Side and then travel to the South Side and you will see the imbalance in our country. At times you won’t feel like you are in the same country.
The issue that our country must confront as it faces the original sin of slavery and racism is not how to reach the ever-elusive peace of a future age, but how to find balance and equity in our own. I take you back to that remarkable archaeological find. That piece of silver with the priestly blessings written upon it. The ladder to peace. A reminder that an individual society can only reach Shalom when our most basic human needs are seen to in an equitable fashion; when our spiritual connection to God is expressed not only in belief but in the values that we manifest in action. It is in that harmony, that balance, that we create Shalom.
For those who think that can never happen, I will remind you that the person who wrote that blessing likely went to the Temple in Jerusalem and stood with the thousands as the High Priest extended his hands in the shape of the letter Shin to recite those blessings. It was a way of saying to the people that while the source of all things come from God, El Shaddai, the societal blessings are in our hands to create. The harmony that is the definition of true Shalom.
This, then, is the message to us as people are marching in the streets, amidst the cries of ‘enough’, the calls for justice. The work that must be done is great, but so are the people of this country. There is no question that we have the potential to create the America that we dream of. I close with the words that I spoke at the rally in Bronzeville this past week, a vision of Shalom that will lead to the fulfillment of the American dream:
Let us, together, discover what Shalom can mean for America!
I, may I rest in peace – I, who am still living, say,
May I have peace in the rest of my life.
I want peace right now while I’m still alive.
I don’t want to wait like that pious man who wished for one leg
of the golden chair of Paradise, I want a four-legged chair
right here, a plain wooden chair. I want the rest of my peace now.
I have lived out my life in wars of every kind: battles without
and within, close combat, face-to-face, the faces always
my own, my lover-face, my enemy-face.
Wars with the old weapons—sticks and stones, blunt axe, words,
dull ripping knife, love and hate,
and wars with newfangled weapons—machine gun, missile,
words, land mines exploding, love and hate.
I don’t want to fulfill my parents’ prophecy that life is war.
I want peace with all my body and all my soul.
Rest me in peace.