As members of the Jewish community we carry, deep within ourselves a trove of Aggadah – legends, thoughts and sayings, whose meanings we don’t understand. We pass these on from generation to generation, as part of our collective Jewish memory. And all this, so that, in one particular generation, in one unique historical moment, the secret of one of these concealed discourses might be revealed, to shed a new light and show us a profound truth.
We are told in the Talmud, that Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai’s greatest virtue was that he never failed to be the first to greet everyone he met with “Shalom!” – even a complete stranger he encountered in the marketplace. Growing up as I did in the Haredi yeshiva world, I always wondered what was the point of such a saying. Is this any way to praise one of the greatest of our Talmudic heroes? I could see honoring him with the claim that, like the Hasidic saints, he could walk through the crowded market oblivious of the people around him, so focused was he on the sacred text he was studying. But… to say that he was always the first to warmly greet everyone and anyone? Is that a worthy role for a great Jewish leader?
Then came the coronavirus.
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Our tradition names the two most traumatic historical chapters for the Jewish people: the Destruction of the Second Temple in the 1st century, and the Holocaust in the 20th. It was during the first of these that Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai was the primary leader who guided Israel through this time of unbearable terror.
Terror differs from fear. While fear is triggered by an identifiable cause, terror is deeper; it wells up, unsummoned, from the wordless and formless darkness of our inner selves. When terror strikes us, as a community, we become vulnerable to raw emotions over which we have no rational mastery.
The evidence of experience shows, that one of the only ways to grapple with terror, is by the forging and fostering of life-affirming human relationships. Through human touch and speech, we can find a way to express the incomprehensible terror that grips us. Giving language to and naming the terror puts it in some proportional context, potentially reducing it to a fear with which we can gradually learn to deal.
As a community leader, Rabbi Yohanan teaches us that, in a time of terror, our role is to be the first to say “Shalom!” That greeting – “Shalom!” – is real human contact through the healing power of language. To say “Shalom!” is to invite even the “Other” – the stranger, the outsider – to use the same healing tongue in response. Even if the “Other” has no language, no words, the invitation is open: echo “Shalom!” with “Shalom!,” and allow language to transform unbearable terror into a bearable fear, contextualized now with human kindness.
Jewish lore teaches us that Shalom (Peace) is one of the many names of the Divine, and the root of the Hebrew word shalom is shared by the word shalem – “whole.” This is a greeting that reflects the “wholeness” of relationship. When we speak this greeting, using this divine name, we are thus acknowledging the divine image in the person we greet. In that moment, in spite of the terror that might be drowning both our bodies and our souls, we can glimpse in each other the divine presence in its human fullness.
The Talmudic narrative about Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai teaches us how utterly simple — and yet, how rare! — it is to show true leadership in times of uncertainty and terror. Unlike political and religious hierarchies, community leadership is something we can all take upon ourselves, with something as simple as saying Hello. And yet, such an action is often far from easy.
As community leaders, we need to recognize the terror that paralyzes those around us, and to be present with them “in the marketplace,” exactly where they are. However, while meeting the anguished in the midst of their reality, a community leader cannot ever be “sucked in” by the terror, but is always choosing to heal that terror in every way possible. And this is a way to begin: by the simple and profound act of saying hello (Shalom), blessing everyone we meet – woman or man or child, Jew or non-Jew, friend or stranger – with the divine name of Shalom.
These past weeks have brought to many of us too much terror, and each day that passes increases our stress. In days like these, the decision whether to be a true community leader lies with each of us, regardless of our official capacity. Every single one of us can be “the first to say ‘Shalom!’” – the first to pick up the phone, send an email or text. Remember: every human conversation has incredible potential to rescue someone from anguish.
During these difficult days, the IAC organization is hosting countless on-line community meetings and support groups open to all Israelis living in the U.S. and their American neighbors. From activities for children to interactive study sessions on Jewish and Hebrew sources at the root of our Jewish culture – we are here, offering everything we can.
The blessing each one of us can offer is not just for our Jewish communities; it effects the world. We can choose to reach out also to someone we regard as “Other,” perhaps to a complete stranger, and to say: “I see you. I see the terror you feel. Yet, I also see the divine image in you, and I make the choice to greet you with a healing peace.”
Such a healing choice forges a connection between a community leader and our divine source and creator. Our sacred texts tell us that “the LORD on high makes peace.” Not “made peace” sometime in the past, but “makes peace” at this very moment, every day – and this we also can do, always, and especially in these days. “Peace then, be upon us;” and to that it is good to say, Amen!