Shalom Aleichem, Aleichem Shalom
Composition and Audio © Alexander Massey, 26 March 2017
First performance 10 May 2017 – United for Peace – United Through Poetry – a service with readings interspersed with silent reflection and music, delivered in partnership with the Edward Cadbury Centre for the Public Understanding of Religion at the University of Birmingham.
Peace to you, to you, peace
Shalom – I wanted to begin what I have to say today with this greeting. Shalom – ‘Peace’. And I‘d like to share with you something from Jewish tradition what shalom means. It’s more than just the end or absence of war. It’s an attitude that we can adopt, a way of being, in the presence of conflict. The word shalom is connected to shleimut, meaning completeness or wholeness. Do we ever reach such a place? Perhaps not. But it makes a difference to aspire to such a state, and to take what action we can, that may take us closer to shalom. I like to think that the time we are given in this life can be dedicated to a continuous process of ‘shalom-ing’ as much as we can. But how should we set about this ‘shalom-ing’ as I have called it?
There’s a clue in a beautiful teaching about how the word shalom is spelled. Its first letter shin, represents aish – ‘fire’. Its final letter mem represents mayim – ‘water’. We find sh and mm again in the word SH-e-M meaning ‘name’, which we use as one of the names for God. And we find the same combination in the word SH-amayi-M, which means ‘heaven’. We experience peace and heaven on Earth when sh and mm, fire and water, are brought together and reconciled. Shalom is all about being prepared to embrace contradiction, engage with the seemingly impossible, and bring opposites into harmonious relationship.
What is clapping?
One of our Jewish mystics, the Baal Shem Tov, taught that when we are happy, we clap our hands. And he taught us that something very profound happens in that moment. You see, normally, my right hand likes just to get on with its business, and says to the other one: “You’re just a crazy lefty!” And my left hand likes to do its own thing, and says, “Agh – you always think you’re right!” So they don’t always get on too well. But, when they’re happy, of course, they naturally want to clap. And so the opposites come together, and they realize how important they are to each other. And the right says to the left, “Shalom aleichem”, and the left replies, “Aleichem shalom”. And then all that remains is the music, and the dance.