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Shiur #25: Shalom

  • Rav Ezra Bick

The last berakha of the Shemoneh Esrei:


Place peace, goodness, and blessing,

grace and kindness and mercy,

on us and on all Israel Your people.

Bless us, our Father, all of us, as one,

with the light of Your countenance.

For with the light of Your countenance

You have given us, HaShem our God,

Torah of life, and the love of kindness,

and righteousness, blessing, mercy, life, and peace.

And may it be pleasing in Your sight to bless Your people Israel,

at all times and at every hour, with Your peace.

Blessed are You, HaShem, Who blesses His people Israel with peace.



            Shalom, the subject of this blessing, is always translated as "peace." This is clearly a correct translation, as is evinced by the numerous biblical verses where this meaning is incontestable. As King Shlomo said in Kohelet, "a time for war and a time for peace" (Ecc. 3,8). The problem here is not one of translation, but of meaning. Just what does peace, shalom, mean?


            This berakha is clearly phrased as a request. We are asking God to grant us peace, as well as goodness, blessing, kindness, and mercy. Now, we know that the place for requests was in the thirteen middle blessings. Why is this one here, at the end, in the section commonly called "hodaya" (gratitude), which we redefined a few weeks ago as "leave-taking?"


            Examining the other objects of request in this blessing, we immediately perceive that they are non-specific, and, to a certain extent, not really things that we want, at first glance, for themselves at all. Goodness, grace, mercy, kindness - what are we asking for? These are attributes of God by which we can expect and request other things. How does peace fit in with them?


A. The Priestly Blessing


            Included in the berakha of Shalom is the priestly blessing. Although this is recited only on holidays outside of the Land of Israel, it was meant to be a daily part of the Shemoneh Esrei. It is based on a three-verse blessing in the Book of Bamidbar.


HaShem spoke to Moshe, saying:

Speak unto Aharon and his sons, saying:

Thus shall you bless the people of Israel, say unto them:


May God bless you and keep you;

May God shine His countenance on you, and be gracious unto you;

May God lift up His countenance to you, and grant you peace.


And they shall place My name on the people of Israel,

And I shall bless them. (Bamidbar 7,22-27)


            Like the berakha of Shalom itself, this blessing also lacks specific objects of the blessing, other than peace. We ask that God bless us, keep us, shine His countenance on us, be gracious, and lift up His countenance to us. Two phrases in particular stand out, both involving the "countenance" of God - to shine His countenance and to lift it up on us. What do these terms mean?


            I think it is clear that we are not asking for SOMETHING for God to give us. If we were, it would have been included in the thirteen middle requests. All of these phrases will undoubtedly result in gain for us if God does them, but the request itself is not that God provide that gain. The terms refer to God's ATTITUDE towards us. In simple terms, we are asking that he relate to us favorably. Somewhat deeper, when we ask for the light of His face to shine on us, we are asking for a personal, loving relationship. We want God to look at us, and not away from us, to share His personal favor with us. Many weeks ago, in the blessing of knowledge (no. 4), I pointed out that the verb "veyichuneka" ("be gracious towards us) means to share Himself with us, to give us of Himself. Grace is where God communes with us, shares Himself with us, or, in the words of the conclusion of the berakha in Bamidbar, "places His name on us." In Biblical Hebrew and in the language of the Sages, one's name is one's personality.  In other words, we have finished asking for THINGS from God. Now we are asking for shalom - for a relationship with God and to share in "the light," the goodness, of his countenance.


            This is very similar to a berakha about God's love ("ahava rabba," which precedes the shema). The difference is the context. We are here, as I pointed out previously, in the process of taking leave of the King. The Shemoneh Esrei is an exercise in service, in avodat ha-melekh, the service of the King. Rather than speaking of God's love for us, we speak of His graciously sharing with us the light of His countenance, with His looking upon us with favor. This too is an intensely personal experience, a religious experience of Divine communion and "deveikut" (cleaving unto God), one that assumes the relationship of servant and lord, and therefore emphasizes the receiving by the servant of the favor of the lord. It is not necessary nor appropriate to speak of particular things we would like God to give us, for here we are not begging that He provide for us but that He maintain and deepen the personal relationship which prayer - avoda - seeks to establish. This is taking leave, trying to carry over to the world the depth of the tefila experience itself.


B. Peace


            This leaves the question of what is shalom, and how it fits in to the otherwise unparticularized concept of God's blessing as expressed in the priestly blessing.


            R. Yitzchak Ara'ama, the author of the famous 15th century collection of homiletical essays on the Torah (Akedat Yitzchak), discusses the concept of peace in his comments to the priestly blessing (Akedat Yitzchak, section 74). His main argument is that peace should not be defined in a negative manner, as the absence of conflict, but must be understood as having a positive content. God's name, according to the Sages, is Shalom, and it is seen as the seal and culmination of all blessing. Surely it must mean more than the elimination of a fault. Among other proofs, he cites the striking question posed by David to Uriah the Hittite when he left the battlefield and came to Jerusalem. "David asked about the shalom of Yoav, and the shalom of the people, and the shalom of the war" (II Sam 11,7). There is such a thing as the "peace" of the war. Obviously, in this context, shalom means something akin to "welfare." In fact, while there are several clear uses of shalom in opposition to war in the Tanakh, most instances are not in a context of strife or battle at all.


            R. Yitzchak Arama'a argues that shalom means the harmonious working together of distinct and individual parts, in such a way as to form a unified and integrated whole. Since in society every man works for his own end, the possibility of strife and conflict is inevitable. Social peace is the existence of a blending of individual ends and aspirations so that the entire society operates harmoniously. (This is accomplished, according to the Akedat Yitzchak, by having a leader and a law, king and Torah - but this is not our topic today.) The peace of the entire world is God, for only God can provide the framework and the inclusive totality to bind together all individual creations. I would like to elaborate on this idea.


            Individual creations of God have their own purpose and own ends. This is especially true of people, created in the image of God, each one an infinite end unto himself, but on a lesser level is true for all things. By their distinctiveness, by the fact that each is different and unique, each one has a different destiny when measured only in terms of itself. This is not a defect in creation, but part of the purpose of creation. "Just as their faces are different, so their personalities are different" (Ber. 58a). Hence, in the very nature of individual creation lies the seed of conflict. Truth, the true nature of an individual value, is the enemy of peace. In several sayings of the Sages, we find Truth and Peace in opposition, most notably, the recommendation that "it is permitted to lie for the sake of peace" (Yevamot 68b). For that reason, true peace, true harmony in the sense of the Akedat Yitzchak, exists properly only in heaven, where all aspects of existence are reconciled within the unity of God. Rav Soloveitchik zt"l explained the verse (which we recite immediately after the completion of this berakha and the Shemoneh Esrei), "He who makes peace in His heavens, may He make peace on us and all Israel," to mean that God, in His unity, is the reconciliation of the contradiction between mercy and justice, between peace and truth, between all the Divine attributes which to us appear to be contradictory. God is the reconciliation of contradictions, the coincidentia oppositorum (quoting Nicholas of Cusa). That is the peace of the heavens. We pray that something of that peace can be made to exist on earth as well.


            As the Akedat Yitzchak explains, this harmony is not achieved by annulling the differences, but rather by coordinating the different aspects of each creature, their strengths and weaknesses, their virtues and failures, together so that the whole, the combined organism, is greater than any of its parts. This is the true meaning of the unity of creation, not a bland blending of all into a featureless oneness, but the rich panoply of a many-hued iridescent unity, where all the parts, in their individuality, complement each other. Since God is One, His creation is also one, though this oneness is lost by the very nature of particular creation. This unity is preserved in the unity of the creator, and its echo remains in our souls, created in the image of God. This sort of harmonious unity of the different is the meaning of "shalom." Of course, it means the absence of strife - any attempt to explain a positive notion of peace which is not contradictory to the very notion of war is ridiculous. But it is far more than merely the absence of strife. If we all live for ourselves and ourselves alone, even if we somehow manage to avoid active conflict (which is unlikely, if not impossible), we are still not experiencing shalom, peace in the true sense. If we do not see the seemingly contradictory aspects of creation, the differences and tensions between different personalities, beliefs, values, and virtues, reconciled into a greater harmonious whole, we are not truly experiencing the fullness of the peace of God.


            That is the reason that this berakha seems to hover on the border of the unrealizable ideal. On the one hand, peace is the true state of creation. On the other hand, it exists in reality only in God. It is the culmination of creation, when seen as a whole, which can only be fully true when seen from the vantage of God. Therefore, peace is called in this berakha "Your peace." Therefore the blessing of peace comes "in the light of Your countenance." It takes God's name being placed on the people of God for us to begin to sense how He has given us, "in the light of His face, Torah of life, and the love of kindness, and righteousness, blessing, mercy, life, and peace." We know this exists, and we know that we need it, and, at the same time, this is not something that can be requested in the usual order of requests that constituted the central heart of the Shemoneh Esrei. We are not asking for a particular gift from God here, not something in addition to the other requests we made, but something of a higher order, the harmony of all the gifts with which we have been endowed. When we take leave of God, as we depart from the state of communion which characterized the Shemoneh Esrei, where we were "standing before the King," we try and take some of this higher state of existence with us back to the particularized and fragmented world in which we, as individuals who cannot actually experience the fullness of the unity of all, live.


C. The Berakha


1. "Bless us, our Father, ALL OF US, AS ONE." The blessing of shalom depends on two things. First of all, that it include "all of us" (kulanu); secondly, that it is fulfilled "as one" (ke-echad). It is a blessing of diversity in harmony, of differences acting together in a higher unity that does not annul those differences but reconciles them in an organic functionality.


2. "In the light of Your countenance." Peace is not created by God and handed to us, but flows from our existing not in our own light but in the light of His face; that is to say, when our existence is viewed from God's vantage point. Standing in the light of God means transcending individual particularity to exist as an aspect of the Divine will, where all is unified in the unity of God.


            We have reached the goal set at the beginning of the series, to review all nineteen berakhot of the Shemoneh Esrei in order both to understand the meaning of our prayers and to extract from them the embedded philosophic principles. In the few remaining weeks, I propose to complete some additional issues of the Shemoneh Esrei.