For my first year of rabbinical school studies, I lived in Jerusalem. Jerusalem probably has more synagogues per capita than any other place in the world. You can find every denomination, every trans-planted community from across the globe, and every language. In the first few months I lived in Jerusalem I went to services often. And as the cantorial class groupie, I attended services with Shira and her classmates to hear liturgical music unlike anything I’d heard before. I remember each of these different places like I was there last month, not 20 years ago.
One of those memories haunts me. It was a Friday night when I was friends praying at Yakar. Yakar is a religious, educational, and cultural center that strives to be a modern, pluralistic, and traditional. Men and women pray separately, though the mechitzah, the separation wall, is about shoulder height. Yakar has become the place where the young and hip pray and do social justice work.
The night I went to Yakar was warm. And it was crowded. I couldn’t find a seat, so I went outside to the women’s overflow patio. The air was calm and thin – and I could smell the spring flowers starting to bloom. The patio was far enough away from the service leader that I had trouble hearing most of the prayers. I stood in a corner, praying where I thought the congregation was in the prayer book.
When everything went silent, I knew that we had reached the Amidah, traditionally recited silently in the evening. I had an Amidah ritual at that time. When praying a silent Amidah, which I rarely do now, at the end I would close my eyes, pray Oseh Shalom, offer a prayer of peace for Israel, add a personal prayer, kiss my siddur, and sit down.
That night at Yakar, as my lips silently finished Oseh Shalom and were about to recite a prayer of peace for Israel, I began to hear gunshots. Living in Jerusalem during the first year of the Second Intifada, the Palestinian uprising, I had, sadly, come to recognize the sounds of gunshots, and could even distinguish them from bombs, military planes breaking the sound barrier, and fireworks. These were clearly gunshots.
I froze. I didn’t know what to do – more specifically, I didn’t know what to pray. I didn’t know if I should even bother to pray, never mind what. Do I pray harder? If I do, would the gunshots stop? I knew how ridiculous that was the moment I thought it. I didn’t pray harder. I didn’t pray at all. I started to sob internally at the painful irony of praying for peace while listening to gunfire. I left. And I didn’t attend another service the remaining months I lived in Jerusalem. I couldn’t. It hurt too much.
Over the years since that night, especially since becoming a rabbi, more than one person has told me how difficult they find prayers for peace in a world so fractured. And yet, prayers for peace and blessings of peace are a central part of Judaism.
The traditional Jewish greeting, shalom aleichem, “peace be upon you,” is answered with aleichem shalom, “and upon you, peace.” Why? Why give each other the blessing of peace? And why pray for peace so often in our worship – Oseh Shalom, Sim Shalom, Shalom Rav, and even the Priestly Benediction, also called the Threefold Blessing of Peace?
There is probably no better gift than the gift of peace. Our ancient rabbis knew that. They taught that the whole purpose of Torah is to establish peace – not to establish law or even community. But peace.
For many of us, 2020 has been anything but peaceful. What began as a virus in Asia, 7,000 miles away, spread to Europe. Then it came to the U.S., though remained far from New Hampshire. We posted signs about washing our hands and reminded our children to sneeze into their arms.
And then everything changed. We were ordered to stay home. We lost our jobs – if not permanently, then at least for a few months. We postponed celebrations, watched loved ones die alone, and attend funerals online. We dug into our savings. We witnessed our children missing their friends and struggling to learn online. On top of the impact of the pandemic, we, particularly white America, were forced to confront the reality that people of color face every day: That our country remains profoundly unequal and unjust. And these two conditions, along with politicians who are inept at best and cruel at worst, have heightened the divide unlike anything we have seen probably since the Civil War.
And so we seek peace, sometimes desperately. One congregant called me just before Rosh Hashanah and asked if I could let her into the sanctuary over the holidays, to sit in a corner in the back, because, in her words, “it’s just so peaceful in there.” As I offered a gentle “I’m so sorry, but no,” I said, “The sanctuary isn’t the issue. It’s your lack of finding peace. Let’s talk about that.”
I cannot magically bring you, or our world, peace. Despite what my dad believed, I don’t have a special “in” with God. But maybe I can offer a lens from which you may be able to find small moments of peace.
We must start with peace for ourselves, for only when we are at peace can we help others know peace. Some find peace in prayer – across the nation, attendance at religious services is up. Some turn to meditation, yoga, long walks, short strolls, or petting an animal. Some find peace in study. This past month, more than a dozen different people participated in the 30 Days/30 Minutes Elul discussions. Some came every day, finding a half-hour respite from the stresses whirling within and without.
Some find peace by giving to others: shopping for someone, delivering groceries or meals, taking a person to a doctor’s appointment. When a congregant recently had surgery, I asked in advance if anyone in the community might be able to assist him when he returned home. This congregant lives about 30 minutes from Concord, and virtually every member who lives close to him volunteered.
It turns out that he has a support network where he lives, but he – and I – were so moved by the outpouring of love and support for him. Peace for all of the volunteers. Comfort and security for the one in need. In our Shabbat morning worship, there’s a traditional prayer that says, in English, “We have come into being to praise, to labor, and to love.” This prayer is actually called a prayer for peace – to praise, to labor, and to love – that’s how we find peace.
Following the horrific events of September 11, 2001, the Bay Area Jewish Healing Center offered this prayer for peace:
Let us live in peace, God.
Let children live in peace, in homes free from brutality and abuse.
Let them go to school in peace, free from fear – and I’d add, — fear of disease.
Let them play in peace, God, safely in parks and neighborhoods; watch over them.
Let partners love in peace, in partnerships free from cruelty.
Let people go to work in peace, with no fears of terror or bloodshed.
Let us travel in peace; protect us, God, in the air, on the seas, along whatever road we take.
Let nations dwell together in peace, without the threat of war hovering over them.
Let us live in peace, God. And let us say, Amen.
Peace need not remain elusive. It is unlikely in the current world that we will find r’fu-ah sh’leimah, a complete and total sense of wholeness or peace. But we can find moments. And we must.
Shana tovah v’Shabbat shalom.