Parashah Ponderings

Searching for Shalom at the End of 2020

In the new Pixar film Soul, which my family and I watched on Disney+ this week, we encounter two souls in search of peace and wholeness. A jazz musician finds little satisfaction as a high school music teacher, believing that he will only find contentment as a performer in a jazz quartet. Another character, an unborn soul, struggles mightily to find that one “spark” that will animate its life on Earth, and in Pixar’s realm of the unborn, the soul can only make it into the land of the living once it has discovered that “spark.” And so, the jazz musician and the unborn soul reluctantly pair up in their search for that one thing that will give them peace of mind, body and, yes, soul.

What the characters in Soul are searching for is what we’re all searching for: shalom.

Now, shalom means much more than “hello, good-bye and peace.” At the root of shalom are the letters shin lamed mem, which form the word shaleym, “to make something whole or complete.” The truth is there is never peace where there is no wholeness. Whether it be warring nations, a psyche pulled in different directions or a body fighting off disease or repairing tissue, until all the pieces in conflict start working in concert there is only chaos and discord. Thus, when we recite the Misheberach blessing for healing, we pray for refuah shelayma, a complete healing for all who are ill. In essence, we are asking God to restore to the “broken” body shelaymut, wholeness, to allow the body’s systems to work in sync — and in sync with medical therapeutics — to overcome the source of ailment, to restore peace to body, mind and soul.

The relationship of peace and wholeness extends as well to our coping with the year from Hell that we are ushering out this week. As we say “Good riddance!” to 2020, we all pray that 2021 will bring us shalom in the fullness of its meaning. As witnesses to senseless killing and violence in the streets, we pray that 2021 will bring us peace. As citizens of a country torn apart by tribal politics, we hope that 2021 will bring our nation closer together. As human beings struggling with the emotional, physical, social and psychological tolls of Covid-19, we cry out for shalom in the new year. For 2021, it will be sufficient to have a peaceful year in which we can reconnect not only with friends and loved ones but with those “other people” with whom we vehemently disagree. 2021 should also be a time when we can connect or reconnect with our better, higher selves. In short, we hope that in 2021 we can realize the peace and wholeness that have eluded us these past months.

As if on cue, the Torah this week also addresses the search for peace and wholeness. As we read the last chapters of the Book of Genesis, we find our ancestors — Jacob and Joseph and their whole family — achieving shalom once and for all. Prior to his death, Jacob asks that he be buried in the very cave where Abraham, Isaac, Sarah, Rebecca and Leah were laid to rest. Having lived a life of turmoil, Jacob finally lies in repose amid the wholeness of his family and at peace in God’s promised land. Joseph’s brothers, who want nothing more than to live in peace alongside Joseph following the death of Jacob, also find shalom. And Joseph, in a remarkable display of resilience, puts his brother’s mistreatment behind him and comes to accept God’s role in his tumultuous life. Ultimately, Joseph, like his father, asks that his bones be buried in the Land of Israel, and they will be — albeit over 400 years later — allowing Joseph posthumously to realize the fullness of shalom in the land of his birth.

The Book of Genesis, which chronicles the early life of the family of Israel, closes with the tying up of loose ends — with shalom. The book opens with tohu va-vohu — formlessness and void — that is replaced by God’s created, orderly universe, a universe at peace with itself. Then we read of the dramatic creation of humankind and its failed attempts at inhabiting the Earth. Though the rainbow appears to be a symbol of peace following the Flood, it is symbolic only of God’s covenant with humanity; humans apparently are left to duke it out amongst themselves. Then, we learn of the trials and travails of our first monotheistic ancestors from Abraham and Sarah through Jacob, Leah and Rachel and their family. Lots of ugliness there. And now, at last, we are treated to “happy ever after” (until next week, at least, when we start reading about slavery in Egypt in the Book of Exodus). After the rollercoaster ride that is Genesis, we deserve this week of shalom in Parashat Vayehi, a week of restfulness when all the factions work in harmony.

After the rollercoaster ride that was 2020, we deserve much more than a week of shalom, and Hollywood, Torah and real life seem to be speaking in one voice in this regard. I encourage you to see Soul and let me know what you think. I see it as a story about our search for shalom, i.e. peace and wholeness. Torah functions much the same way. Sometimes moments of peace are obvious, but even amidst warfare, doubt, and kvetching, God is behind the scenes trying to make everything work out well. And then there’s us in this moment. We’ve been through a lot, and we certainly have a few, perhaps many, months to go before the pandemic is behind us and our nation, God willing, emerges from dystopia. The prophets Peter, Paul and Mary once asked “for the wisdom to know when the peacemaker’s time is at hand.” We see that time in Soul and in Torah. Might that time for us be in the coming year?

May we find in 2021 that which we all seek — shalom, a time of peace and wholeness.

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