May God bless and keep you always– Bob Dylan, Forever Young
May your wishes all come true
May you always do for others
And let others do for you
May you build a ladder to the stars
And climb on every rung
May you stay forever young
You may well have recognised these words from the immemorial song of Bob Dylan, Forever Young. The opening words of Dylan’s evocative lyrics come from the Torah reading of this week.
These are the words that the priests of Israel would bless the people of Israel with:
May the Lord bless you and protect you;
May the Lord make His face shine on you and be gracious to you;
May the Lord turn His face toward you and give you peace.
(Numbers 6:23 -27).
Today they are recited in the synagogue and many a church, at weddings and bar/bat mitzvahs. They are also said by many Jewish parents on a Friday evening when they tenderly rest their hands on their children’s heads and bless them with these powerful words.
They are strong and simple words; their very simplicity gives them a special potency. There’s a rhythmic quality about them as the blessings increase in words and in abundance, as they move from the material and physical to the spiritual and inward. Like Dylan’s words they go from the physically protective to the soaring stars and then to the inner spirit of youthful energy.
The crescendo of the blessing is the wish for peace. The quest for peace is fundamental to Jewish tradition. It is the seal of our most important prayers – it is at the ending of our daily services. It is the culmination of one of our holiest utterances, the Kaddish, it is the last word of our Grace after Meals prayer. In a sense it is Judaism’s final pronunciation, it’s last word for and about life and loving. You cannot live properly without peace, you cannot thrive without inner peace, you cannot connect adequately to your Creator without a commitment to peace.
Peace in Jewish literature and tradition is not merely the absence of war or conflict. It is rather the bringing together of opposing forces or ideas, the harmonising of diverse people or principles. The Jewish philosopher Joseph Albo said that conflict is at the heart of the human condition and peace is the force of fusion. It is what another Dylan, Dylan Thomas, calls “the force that through the green fuse drives the flower”. The Hebrew word for peace, shalom, is intimately related to the Hebrew word for wholeness shelemut.
The charismatic rabbi-philosopher, Jonathan Sacks who died in 2020, expanded this idea into contemporary times. He suggested that shalom is the harmonious coexistence of otherwise conflicting individuals, tribes, and nations, each with a distinctive nature and unique contribution to the totality of humankind. Shalom, he says, it’s not about uniformity but integrated diversity.
In a world torn by warfare from the Ukraine to Myanmar, from Africa to the Middle East, the quest for peace is so urgently desired, so agonisingly distant. In the world suffering from the impact of Covid and financial crisis, the need for peace, especially inner peace is so desperately demanded.
We may not be able to do much to bring about world peace, but we can work to bring about harmony in our own lives, within our own selves and between us and others. We can do for others and let others do for us. As the wise Hillel counselled: Love peace, pursue peace, love humanity and bring them close to the Torah.