V’dirshu et shalom ha’ir – Seek the peace of the city

Music and audio © 1 May 2023 Alexander Massey

“Seek the peace—the shalom—of the city, and pray to God for it:
for in its shalom, you shall all have shalom.” (Jer. 29:7)

In Hebrew, the word ‘peace’ is shalom­. The first letter of shalom is shin, which, for us, represents fire, and the final letter is mem, which represents water. Shalom, the Hebrew concept of peace, represents not just the cessation or absence of violence, but the reconciliation of opposites, the harmonious balancing of diverse and sometimes apparently incompatible elements. Weekly Jewish services include prayers for the community, for the nation, for the world, for our leaders, and for our sovereign. We are guided to do this from this verse in the book of our prophet Jeremiah. You’ll hear the tune is in two halves, with different moods. The first half is about the search for shalom, and the second half expresses the feeling of when shalom is present.

I wrote this song on the occasion of the coronation of King Charles III and Queen Camilla. Its first performance was on 7 May 2023, at the ‘Coronation Big Lunch’, an Oxford Interfaith Community Lunch with the High Sheriff and Deputy Lieutenant of Oxfordshire, the Chair of Oxfordshire County Council, and the Lord Mayor of Oxford present, as well as representatives from many faith communities.

When I was asked to perform for Oxford’s Together For Humanity (TFH) event on 21 January 2024, I felt this song could be a good fit. The TFH movement has been created to “stand against rising antisemitism and anti-Muslim hate amidst the ongoing conflict in Israel and Palestine.” In preparation for the event, I sat with the text again, exploring how to create an English lyric that might express one possible interpretation of the original Hebrew. What could “shalom in the city” mean? A city has a large, diverse population. People come and go. We randomly meet people from all walks of life. And we have to find a way to get along with them, or the living organism of the city simply cannot survive. In an earlier draft, I wrote “search for shalom with all you live nearby.” But that suggested I might choose to live near some, and avoid others; that would be avoiding what’s really needed. To “search for shalom with all who live nearby” is the deeper, and more important spiritual challenge. I have to stretch myself well beyond the boundaries where I am comfortable. I have to change, grow, live out shalom in my own personal practice. I have to remember that even someone I see as my enemy, who I might feel compelled to resist with force, is also, just like me, made in the image of God. The last line of my English lyric shows considerable poetic licence; it says something about what I think shalom is—the movement from being mutually exclusive to mutually inclusive. As my Rabbi, Zalman Shachter-Shalomi (zt”l) loved to teach, “The only way we can get it together, is together.” I’m still working on the English lyric, but here’s the current version:

May we search for shalom with all who live nearby,
And may we pray for shalom to Adonai.
For when shalom descends,
Then all unkindness ends.
For when shalom descends,
our enemies become our friends.