Sermon: Why we say ‘L’shalom’ not ‘B’shalom’

Written by Rabbi Josh Levy — 30 November 2019

At the end of our portion this morning is a wonderful moment of reconciliation.  An honest exchange between two protagonists, Abimelech and Isaac, eating and drinking together, an exchange of oaths.

To later generations of Jews, though, something in this text might not sit right – a note in it jars, a phrase that feels out of place.  Abimelech says to Isaac ‘va’n’shaleichacha b’shalom’ – ‘We have sent you away b’shalom, in peace’.

By the time of the Amoraim, the second wave of rabbinic literature, well over a thousand years after the origin of this section of Genesis – a tradition had emerged that this language, to send someone ‘in peace’ – b’shalom – was not to be used.   You still sometimes see it at the bottom of rabbis’ emails, b’shalom, but this goes against a tradition found in the Babylonian Talmud.   It is quoted there in the name of a fourth century CE sage called Rabbi Avin HaLevi.  He says:  “One who parts from a friend should not say to them leich b’shalom – go in peace, but leich l’shalom – literally go to peace.”  By contrast, he continues, one who departs from the body of someone who has died, or before death should not say leich l’shalom but leich b’shalom.

In fact, this tradition is not so unfamiliar to our ear.  Think of Shalom Aleichem which we sing often on Friday nights, a song which first appears in the seventeenth century, addressed to the angels who, according to Talmudic tradition, accompany us home from shul on Erev Shabbat.  We sing there not ‘boachem b’shalom, tseitchem b’shalom’ – Enter in peace, Go forth in peace, but ‘boachem l’shalom, tseitchem l’shalom’ – often translated in the same way (English is terribly limiting sometimes) but intentionally using a different preposition.

But why?
Why is b’shalom associated with saying goodbye to the dead, and l’shalom with parting from the living?

As always with Talmud and Midrash, one part of the explanation is the textual associations that the rabbis could make.  Rabbi Avin points to the example of Jethro saying goodbye to his son-in-law Moses in Exodus 4 where he wishes him leich l’shalom – and things go pretty well.  This he contrasts with another example, one from the life of King David, in which the wishing of b’shalom to someone leads to a death; he also contrasts it with God’s own words to Abraham in the Covenant of the Pieces – tavo al avotecha b’shalom – you shall go to your ancestors in peace.

So, in part, this is about the text.  They could, though, have pointed to our portion as a counter position.  Proof texts follow rather than set the agenda.  So there must be something deeper here too.

In fact, this maxim from Rabbi Avin is a comment on the nature of human existence.  A recognition that our lives are a constant journey.  Journey is a word that has become deeply devalued thanks to the influence of TV talent shows – “it’s been such a journey,” says the 16 year old singer – but the reality of life is movement and change.  B’shalom would imply cessation – hence its use for those who have died, l’shalom recognises that constant movement of human existence.

We are all travellers always.  And in the blessing for travellers that we sometimes read in community to send people on their way we read, “May it be Your will, God, she-tolicheinu l’shalom, v’tatzideinu l’shalom, v’tadricheinu l’shalom – lead us towards peace, direct our footsteps towards peace, guide us to peace.”  This sense of movement, Avin tells us, is the reality of human life.

There is a comment here, too, on the nature of peace – that it is not something one can sit in, but something which requires activity, work, to be made or remade each day; something that we aim towards rather than dwell within.  In Pirkei Avot we find a statement in the name of Hillel:  Be among the disciples of Aaron, ohev shalom v’rodef shalom – loving peace and pursuing peace.  It is not enough merely to enjoy it, peace is something to be pursued.  It is a task as much as a blessing.

This is reflected in a later commentary on the statement in Pirkei Avot.  In Avot d’RabbI Natan we read: Rodef shalom, keitzad.  A pursuer of peace – how?  Its answer: that a person should seek to bring peace between people – bein kol echad v’echad – everyone.  And it continues Rabbi Shimon ben Elazar says – im yosheiv adam b’m’komo v’shoteik, hei’ach rodef shalom – If a person sits in their place and is silent, how are they a pursuer of peace?

This is an echo of a number of many other rabbinic passages.  In Midrash Tanchuma we read:
If someone sits in their home declaring: “What concern are the problems of the community to me? What does their judgment mean to me? Why should I listen to them? ‘Shalom alayich nafshi’ – Peace be upon my soul” – this person helps to destroy the world.

Rabbi Avin, by means of a mere preposition, a single letter, forces us to think about how we understand ourselves in the world. The hope to sit b’shalom is to ignore the reality of human life – that we can’t take things for granted, that we need to always continue to strive to bring peace between people and to the world.  Rather we seek to exist l’shalom, to go towards peace.   In the context of our fractured and fracturing society, facing enormous challenges of policy and of society, it is a reminder of the importance of stepping up rather than stepping back.  “At a time when the community is suffering”, the Talmud instructs us “no one should say ‘I will go home, and eat and drink, ‘Shalom alayich nafshi’ – and peace be upon my soul”.

As an aside, there is, of course, one other lesson here too.
Our tradition contains within it an extreme sensitivity to language.  Just one letter, a mere preposition, can change the meaning of a phrase from blessing to curse.  We live in a time where this sensitivity to language is becoming lost – when speed of response is more important than reflection, when words can be thrown out without thought and it is an excuse, rather than a condemnation, to say afterwards, “I misspoke”.  When those in the public eye can claim without irony that they said one thing but meant exactly the opposite.  B’shalom, l’shalom –is a warning:  we might think we are saying something of love but actually the opposite is heard.  The nuances of our language matter.

Abimelech’s intention in his words to Isaac are clear.  This is a moment of reconciliation, he is not saying anything untoward, even if that is how later ears might have heard it.  This is a reminder, too, that the meaning of language changes, and the words he uttered in our narrative mean something different today.

Today, we do not speak of going b’shalom but l’shalom.  That we do so is a recognition of the constant journey of human life, and more importantly that the task of creating peaceful relationships and a peaceful world is not one that can ever cease, but is a constant work for all of us.  May we be like the students of Aaron, loving peace and pursuing peace; may we not say ‘shalom alayich nafshi’ – peace be upon my soul, but leich l’shalom – ‘go to peace’, working ever towards it.