Rabbi Charles P. Sherman
Roberta Wasserman Bat Mitzvah
Shabbat Naso – May 18, 2013
Shalom is probably the best-known Hebrew word, and it is the climax of this week’s Priestly Benediction. I propose that we concentrate on offering this greeting with genuine concern and warmth, for it has the potential to transform the lives of those with whom we come in contact, and of our own lives as well.
The Shalom Committee
Friends, this morning I want to propose that – in addition to all the other committees we have in this congregation – we create one more. This committee will be a little bit different than all the other committees we have – it will have no meetings, no minutes, no chairperson. That alone should make it a committee which you will want to join.
Before I make my suggestion, let me ask you a question – in your opinion, what is the best known Hebrew word? Which Hebrew word is known by more people than any other?
Yes, I also think it is probably the word “shalom.” Even people who don’t know many other words of Hebrew know this one because we use it so often. Shalom means peace. Shalom means hello. Shalom means goodbye. Shalom also means well-being, harmony, and completion.
I want to speak with you about shalom today for two reasons. You just heard Cantor Kari and me ask God’s blessing upon Roberta in the words of the Birkat Kohanim, the three-part blessing with which God commanded the priests to bless the People of Israel. It ends with “may God grant you shalom.” Shalom must be an important word if it is the climax of the threefold blessing which is found in this week’s Torah portion.
The second reason for this subject of shalom today is because of an incident reported by Rabbi Jack Riemer. I frequently cite Rabbi Riemer in my sermons. I admire his creativity and am proud that he is a fellow Pittsburgher and Pitt grad. Rabbi Riemer reports that recently there was a discovery in his childhood synagogue. The rabbi there discovered that when the synagogue was founded back in 1881 they wrote a constitution and by-laws which had a list of the standing committees of the congregation. One of the committees on that list was “The Shalom Committee.”
Neither Rabbi Riemer nor I know for certain what that Shalom Committee was supposed to do. His guess is that it was a kind of arbitration committee. When two members of the synagogue had a dispute, they could turn to the Shalom Committee to resolve the matter and make peace between them. I don’t know; perhaps that was the function of the Shalom Committee. But I am intrigued by the name, and what I would like to propose to you today is that we form a Shalom Committee here in this Temple, and that each and every one of us join this committee.
I’ve been around organizational life for a long time and I know all the jokes about committees. What’s the difference between a camel and a horse? A camel is a horse that was put together by a committee.
I know the political rule that if you want to kill a project, the best way to do it is by appointing a committee to study the matter.
And yet I want to propose, in all seriousness, that we do what that Pittsburgh synagogue did more than 100 years ago and create a Shalom Committee – and I want to urge that we all join this committee.
So if Temple Israel were to have a Shalom Committee, what would its duties be? I do not think it would be a committee in charge of arbitrating disputes. Arbitration has become a specialized profession in our time. You have to go to school, get a degree, and a license before you can be a professional arbitrator. You have to be trained in divorce law or labor law or inheritance law before you’re allowed to be a professional arbitrator. So that is not what I have in mind when I suggest that we should all join the Temple Israel Shalom Committee.
My proposal is much more modest than that. My proposal is based on the fact that in Hebrew shalom has three primary meanings – peace, hello, and goodbye. A cynic once said the reason we Jews use the same name for hello and goodbye is that we don’t know whether we’re coming or going. But that’s another matter.
My proposal very simply is this. As you know there are 613 mitzvot – commandments, obligations – in our Torah. No one can keep them all today, because the Jerusalem Temple, where we’re required to bring our sacrifices, no longer exists. Therefore, some Jews try to “major in” or “focus on” or “concentrate on” one mitzvah. My proposal is that those who join the Shalom Committee concentrate on the mitzvah of saying shalom properly.
Now I understand that at first this sounds like a foolish idea, or a rather superficial idea. Do we really need a committee to teach us how to say hello? What could be easier than to say “hello” or “how are you”? We do it all the time without thinking, almost instinctively. And when we’re asked – “how are you? – we answer “fine, thank you – how are you?” Automatically, without thinking. It’s a matter of habit.
And yet I want to propose to you this morning that the act of saying “hello” and the act of answering “hello” is a mitzvah of great importance which has the power to transform the lives of those with whom we come in contact – and our own lives as well – provided we do it the way we should.
In Rabbi Riemer’s Florida congregation they have a receiving line on Rosh Hashanah. Hundreds of people go by and shake hands with the rabbi, cantor, and the officers, and wish each other a good year. Rabbi Riemer says: “I value that moment; I really do. It’s the one moment during the entire year when I speak to every single person – face-to-face, eye-to-eye – one at a time.
And yet I know how perfunctory, how casual, and how superficial this moment can be. I tried this out once. As people went by in the receiving line and asked me ‘how are you?’ I answered ‘fine, thank you. I just murdered my uncle.’ And almost everyone answered ‘oh really? That’s nice,’ and moved on.”
That is not the kind of shalom for us to say. The kind of shalom that is mumbled without thinking is not a fulfillment of the mitzvah. What I have in mind is saying shalom and really meaning it. Saying shalom in such a way as to really express your concern for the human being to whom you are speaking. What I have in mind is saying shalom in such a way as to convey that you really care how he is and what she is going through. Let me explain what I mean.
Walk into any crowded room – be it a party, a Temple Oneg Shabbat, or a meeting – and we see a host of people. But all we really see is their external expressions. Generally, we see a crowd of content faces, but we have no idea what is going on behind those happy faces.
This one has a doctor’s appointment next week at which he will get the results of the MRI which he just took, and he has no idea which word the doctor will pronounce – “benign” or “malignant”. And so, beneath his poker face, he is counting the days and waiting for the verdict which may well determine his life.
Next to him is a woman whose child is wrestling with a drug problem and it is eating her up, even though she has a smile pasted on her face.
Over there in the corner is a man who has worked loyally for his company for many years. But now a new owner has taken over the business, so he does not know whether or for how much longer he will keep his job. To look at him you would not think he had a worry in the world; but, beneath his brave exterior, he is anxious and ill-at-ease.
All over this crowd there are people who are wearing public faces, but who are privately burdened with fear and guilt, a sense of inferiority or insecurity. What shall we say to these people, we who may not even be aware of what’s going on behind their masks and inside their hearts. The only thing I can suggest we say to them is “shalom, how are you?” For if we say that and if we say it sincerely, we may give people a sense that they are not alone, not abandoned, not ignored, and that can be a very healing thing to tell a person who is in distress.
The Talmud says that it is a mitzvah to be the first to say hello. We are not supposed to stand on our dignity and wait to see if the other person will say hello first; we are supposed to be the first one to say hello. And if we don’t, then the Talmud says we are guilty of theft. What an interesting teaching.
What kind of theft is it if I don’t say hello to someone? It’s not as if I’ve stolen anything that belongs to him, is it? Yet in a way it is. For if I ignore someone, if I snub someone, I’ve robbed him or her of their dignity. I have stolen their right to be noticed and recognized and appreciated as a precious human being. So the Talmud insists – whoever does not say shalom is a thief.
Please remember that the next time you brush by someone without a greeting, or the next time you wait for someone to speak to you first. When we greet a person, we give that person a gift, a gift of enormous value – the gift of recognition. This person matters to you; this person is of value in your life.
Therefore, parents in traditional – especially Yiddish-speaking – homes would teach their child not to say hello. They didn’t teach: say shalom or shake hands. They said gib sholom which literally means “give peace.”
I believe that the parent who trains his daughter or his son to shake hands, kiss, or hug this way, using this expression, is training their child to understand that every time you offer a sincere, heart-felt greeting, you give a gift. You give a gift of a little bit of peace to the person whom you greet.
Let’s be realistic. You and I can do very little by ourselves to bring about peace between nations. On our own, you and I cannot do much to increase international understanding. We have to leave that task to the heads of state and the experts who know far more about these things than we do.
But we can do something to increase the amount of shalom, the amount of well-being, the amount of harmony which exists in our house or on our block or in our synagogue. That is within our ability to do.
And so I invite you today to join the Temple Israel Shalom Committee. There are no dues; there are no offices. There are not even any meetings of this committee. All you have to do in order to be a member is to resolve to say shalom to whomever you meet, whenever you meet them, and to do so with a welcoming smile, a warm handshake or hug, a genuine greeting.
I know that sounds like a small thing, perhaps even too trivial to speak about from the bima. And yet one Talmudic sage went so far as to declare “the name of the Holy One, blessed be God, is shalom. And the Talmud says gadol ha’Shalom – great is peace – for it is the vessel within which all the other blessings are contained. Great is shalom, for it is the last word of the three-fold blessing in this week’s Torah portion. Great is shalom for it has the power to raise the hopes and lift the spirits of those with whom we come in contact.
So my dear friends, please say shalom or hello. Say it and mean it. For if we do, we can make our piece of the world a brighter and a better place for those whom we meet and greet, and for ourselves as well. Amen
— I am indebted to my landsman, Rabbi Jack Riemer, for this message.