The Deeper Meaning of Shalom

by Rabbi David Zaslow
January, 2004
Contrary to popular opinion the Hebrew word shalom does not mean “peace,” at least not in the English sense of the word. It comes from a Hebrew root-word that means “wholeness.” And what is wholeness? In the Hebraic way of thinking, wholeness is the joining together of opposites. That’s why we say “shalom” when we greet friends and when we are wish them farewell. In the most opposite of situations (coming and going) we use the same word, “shalom.” There is a hidden connection to all our comings and goings; they are wondrously linked together. When I come from somewhere, I am going to someplace else. When I realize this, I feel “wholeness,” and that is the source of peace – the knowledge that all my opposing energies are somehow linked and part of a single whole. True peace must have wholeness as its foundation.

If I am a political left-winger I am only flying with one wing. If I am a political right-winger I am only flying with one wing; yet it takes two wings for an eagle to fly. It takes the integration of two opposing positions for there to be real “shalom.” The word dialogue comes from the Greek “dia + logos” meaning “across words,” or “across reason,” or “speech that goes back and forth.” It’s easy to have a left wing or a right wing “peace rally” with people who already agree with us. But this is not the wholeness that is implied in the word “shalom.”

In the Hebraic view, shalom brings the binary mind together, integrating the left brain modality of thinking (linear) and the right brain modality (intuitive). When I say hello to someone I say “shalom.” When I say goodbye to someone I say “shalom.” What is more opposite than coming and going? Hello and goodbye? Shalom is the most radical union of opposites imaginable. Shalom brings together people who disagree with each other so that each will listen deeply to the “other” side. It is the people you do not agree with who have the greatest gift for you – the gift of the potential for wholeness.

The peace movement I belong to is not liberal or conservative, it is both liberal and conservative. It is not left wing or right wing, it flies with two wings. It is not religious vs. secular, rather it integrates the genius of both science and spirituality. The peace movement I belong to refuses to create an “other” out of the people with whom I may disagree on a particular issue. To the contrary, the peace movement I belong to is one of dialogue: tough dialogue, heart-wrenching dialogue, gentle dialogue, but always dialogue – speech that goes back and forth – with each side constantly challenging, refining, and purifying the “other” until we recognize that the “other” is none “other” than a reflection of our own selves.

Reb Shlomo Carlebach z”l taught about Psalm 122 when he said, “A prayer for peace: Because of my brothers and sisters – not just me, but for the whole world, let there be peace! Do you know why there is no peace in the world? Because the world is into force. First they force war on each other, now they want to force peace upon each other. But it doesn’t work. Peace by force isn’t peace. Peace is the most non-force in the world.”

May God’s blessings flow upon everyone who is part of this unnamed and unnameable movement, wave, energy, and heavenly blessing that comes from God, the true Source of Shalom. In Jewish liturgy we celebrate God as the “Former of light and Creator of darkness, Maker of peace, and Creator of the whole.” Created in that image, may this wholeness manifest in our lives and within the world. Amayn!

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