Shalom Aleichem; peace unto you, is the classic Jewish greeting. It is beautiful, meaningful, and succinct. The classic response, however, is curious. Rather than responding with Shalom Aleichem, we reverse the greeting and say Aleichem SHalom, unto you peace.
Now, Jews like to be contrarian. Next time you are at a Jewish gathering pay attention to the conversations around you. If one says something was easy, the other will try to prove it was difficult. If one says something is good, the other will argue that it is bad. Is this why Jews offer a contrarian response to Shalom Aleichem?
Obviously, I make this suggestion in jest. In truth there is a deep and symmetrical reason that for this unusual response, but we will get back to it a little later in the essay.
G-d’s revelation at Mount Sinai was intended to be temporary; it was meant to last as long as it took for Him to deliver the Ten Commandments. Afterward, G-d wanted to dwell permanently among the people, and He instructed them to build a Tabernacle.
One would think that the permanent presence in the Tabernacle would have had a greater effect on the people than the temporary revelation at Sinai. Yet, we find that the people were in a more G-d;y state at Sinai than they were in the Tabernacle.
When our ancestors arrived at Sinai, they were in a state of perfect unity—as one person with one heart. When they built the Tabernacle, G-d made the following statement. “They should make for me a tabernacle in I will dwell in them.” G-d did not say I will dwell in him or her, but in them. This implies plurality—each person is separate from the other.
Unity is a sign of G-dliness. Separateness is indicative of ego. If I feel different from you, it means I am feeling myself and my preferences. When we set our personal preferences aside and become one with one another, we transcend our individual selves and find our common oneness through our soul. There is only one G-d, and since the soul is a slice of G-d, there is also only one soul. The soul in me is one with the soul in you. When I feel G-dly, I identify with my soul and since my soul is one with your soul, I feel united with you. If I am feeling unG-dly, and identify as separate from G-d, I feel separate from you.
At Sinai, Jews felt G-dly and were thus like one person with one heart. In the Tabernacle they were a plurality, which means they were not feeling as G-dly. How can that be?
The answer is that at Sinai G-d revealed himself in a top bottom dynamic whereas in the Tabernacle it was a bottom up dynamic. At Sinai G-d descended as He is, unfiltered and unabridged. 600 000 people saw the same raw and powerful G-d and surrendered their individuality to His singularity. When it came to the Tabernacle, G-d said, you construct it for me. I want to dwell in a home fashioned by you. Though G-d’s presence was permanent in the Tabernacle, since it was built by the people, it was relatively muted, thus the people could feel themselves—their individuality and plurality.
The benefit of the top bottom Sinai dynamic is that we received the authentic truth on G-d’s terms. There were no errors or misstatements; everything was perfect. The benefit of the bottom up dynamic is that it was self generated—it came from within. It wasn’t as transcendent as the top bottom dynamic, but it was authentic to us—we felt it where and as we were. Both are important. We want to receive the authentic truth from above. But we want to internalize it on our level as we are below.
However, even as we approach G-d from below, we must be careful to approach G-d as G-d wants us to approach Him not as we want to approach Him. By that I mean, we must follow the Divine instructions to the letter to ensure that it is G-d’s sanctuary, not our sanctuary.
Since it is built by us, we might be tempted to change the specs a little and do as we like. But we must remember that we are trying to reach G-d. We can only reach G-d, if we follow His instructions. If we want Him to dwell in us, we must build a sanctuary on His terms.
Suppose you want to lose thirty pounds in three months. Your trainer gives you a strict regimen to follow at home, but you decide to change it. You don’t like the smoothies, so you replace it with milkshakes. You don’t like the treadmill; you stroll around your garden instead. At the end of the three months, you weigh yourself and find that you failed to achieve your goal. If you change the specs you don’t get to where you want to go.
A poor man once tasted delicious chicken soup in his wealthy neighbor’s home. He asked his wife to make a similar soup, but she said, we can’t afford the chicken. He replied, so it will be without chicken. She said, we can’t afford the vegetables. He replied, so make it without vegetables. She said, we can’t afford the salt and spices. He replied, so it will be without spices. When she served the soup, you can imagine that it didn’t taste quite as he had hoped. You change the specs; you change the outcome.
The same is true of Torah. If we want to experience G-d in our world, where we feel our plurality and our ego, we need to follow His specs. We can’t decide that it suits us better to adjust the rules because we live in a modern world. We can’t change the requirements when we don’t agree with them. If we change them, we will fail to achieve our objective. We might build a sanctuary, but it will be for us, not for G-d. We won’t reach G-d and He won’t dwell in us. We might end up building a home that we like very much, but G-d won’t like it. He won’t dwell in it.
If we follow His specs, it might not be as perfect as it would have been had G-d made it, but He will dwell in it because it was made on His terms and it is authentic to us.
We can now understand why we respond to Shalom Aleichem with Aleichem Shalom. Shalom is one of G-d’s names. When you say Shalom Aleichem, you begin your greeting with G-d’s name. When I reply Aleichem Shalom, I conclude the greeting with G-d’s name. G-d is the beginning and the end. He sets the pace and the rules. All we do is follow.
Moreover, when we say Shalom Aleichem we imply a top down Sinai paradigm. Shalom is peace—the sign of unity and G-d as we discussed earlier. When Shalom comes first and Aleichem second, the message is we will be unified because G-d has instructed it. Shalom—G-d imposes peace. Aleichem—upon you.
When we reply Aleichem Shalom, we proclaim that we are not merely willing to accept G-d’s imposition of peace, but are prepared to adopt and embrace it ourselves. Aleichem—the people here below, accept Shalom—the peace and unity from G-d above.
This way we have both: What G-d gave from above, we accept here below. We don’t change or adjust it. We take it as it is. As He wants it. And we learn to want it too.