A Weekly Message from Rabbi Sam Levine 5.21.21

May 21, 2021

10 Sivan 5781

Rabbi Manei of Sh’av and Rabbi Yehoshua of Sikhnin said in the name of Rabbi Levi: Great is peace, for all blessings and goodness and mercies (i.e. prayers) that the Holy Blessed One gives to Israel are sealed with peace. The reading of the Shema ends with poreis sukkat SHALOM / who spreads the shelter of PEACE…. The standing prayer (the amidah) ends with oseh SHALOM / May the One who makes PEACE …. The Priestly Blessing ends with veyasem lecha SHALOM / …and grant you PEACE (Numbers 6:26).  – Leviticus Rabbah, 9:9

Rabbi Shimon ben Halafta said: the Holy Blessed One found no vessel that could contain blessing for Israel save that of peace, as it is written: “The Lord will give strength unto his people; the Lord will bless his people with peace” (Ps. 29:11). – Mishnah Oktzin 3:12

I’ve spent the past ten days fretting over the situation in Israel, attending numerous online workshops and information sessions, and reading dozens of articles, from the left and right, trying to make sense of the conflict, its causes, and its possible end. It’s a great relief that a cease-fire has been brokered at last. 

It’s an apt time to remind ourselves of the central place that SHALOM plays in our tradition. We began to explore this theme last week at our Tikkun Leil Shavuot study session, where we examined a series of texts on strife and peace. The first passage above, from Leviticus Rabbah, is one of the texts we looked at, a small part of a long midrash in which a veritable parade of sages each extols the “greatness of peace” giving a justification for it. It astutely points out that all of our major chunks of liturgy end with blessings for peace. The last of these, the Priestly Blessing, is a central feature of our morning amidah

The Priestly Blessing is taken from this week’s Torah reading, parashat Naso. God tells Moses that the priests, the kohanim, are to bless the Children of Israel with these words:

May the Lord bless and protect you!

May the Lord shine God’s face upon you and be gracious to you

May the Lord lift up God’s face toward you and grant you peace

(Numbers 6:24-26)

Rabbi Shai Held references Bible scholar Jacob Milgrom, who describes the structure of the Priestly Blessing as “a rising crescendo:” “there are three words in the first line (in Hebrew), five in the second, and seven in the third; 15 consonants in the first line, 20 in the second, and 25 in the third. The sense conveyed is of increasing, overflowing divine blessing.” And the pinnacle of the blessing? SHALOM.

The two ancient passages that I quote above come together, around 1500 years later, in the words of the Netziv, Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin, who comments on the last of the three lines of the blessing: “…’And grant you peace:’ [Peace] appears at the end of every blessing. One blesses [only] in a vessel that can contain [the blessings] (i.e. the fact that each blessing ends with “peace” makes it a “vessel” that is fit to contain the blessing). Without peace, there is no pleasure or satisfaction in any blessing.” (Ha’amek Davar, Num. 6:26).

A cease-fire is not a lasting peace. As I heard an Israeli journalist say yesterday, “a cease fire can last eight years, eight days, or eight hours.” But there is a moment of reprieve, and that is something to celebrate. Now to the business of salvaging what can be salvaged, trying to restore frayed relationships, and, as we pray for “increasing, overflowing divine blessing,” taking some steps toward building a more stable foundation for real peace.

Tonight, we’ll recite one of the prayers referenced in Leviticus Rabbah: Guard our coming and our going; grant us life and peace, now and always. Spread over us the shelter of Your peace. Praised are you, Lord, who spreads the shelter of peace over us, over all G-d’s people Israel, and over Jerusalem. 

Shabbat shalom um’vorach – a truly peaceful and blessed Shabbat.

Rabbi Sam Levine