Praying for Peace
At the end of the Amidah, we ask for God to “שים שלום - grant peace.”1 But the word “שלום - peace” has multiple meanings, and it is not clear exactly what we are asking for in this moment. Is this a request for broad political stability, or something more personal? How might we understand this request for peace and how it relates to our prayer life?
One possibility is that we are asking for political peace, which is certainly a core value in the Torah, and furthered by Rabbinic tradition. In Parashat Shoftim, Moshe instructs Israel to appeal to their enemies to make peace before launching a campaign of war:
כִּֽי־תִקְרַב אֶל־עִיר לְהִלָּחֵם עָלֶיהָ וְקָרָאתָ אֵלֶיהָ לְשָׁלוֹם:
When you approach a city to make war against it, call out to it in peace.
The midrash on this verse notes how this command highlights the overarching importance of peace between nations: even in a time of war, one must call out in peace.2
This approach is radical. Why call out in peace when one is looking to conquer another nation in war? The value of peace is so strong that it outweighs the element of surprise in battle. Indeed, this instinct to reach out in peace is so counterintuitive that, according to one midrashic tradition, Moshe had to convince God of this approach in dealing with enemies:
כשאמר לו הקדוש ברוך הוא עשה מלחמה עם סיחון אפי' הוא אינו מבקש לעשות עמך את תתגר בו מלחמה שנאמר (דברים ב) "קומו סעו ועברו את נחל ארנון" ומשה לא עשה כן אלא מה כתיב למעלה "ואשלח מלאכים".
א"ל הקדוש ברוך הוא חייך שאני מבטל דברי ומקיים דבריך שנא' (דברים כ) "כי תקרב אל עיר להלחם עליה וקראת אליה לשלום".
When the Holy Blessed One said [to Moshe] to wage war with Sihon, even though [Sihon] didn’t want to wage war with [Israel], as it is said, “Get up, travel, and pass over the wadi Arnon[, see I give Sihon into your hand]” (Deuteronomy 2:24) Moshe didn’t carry out that instruction. Rather, it is what is written later, “I sent messengers [bearing words of peace]” (2:26).
The Holy Blessed One said to him: I swear that I will cancel My words and establish your words, as it says: “when you approach a city to make war against it, call out to it in peace” (20:10).
In this midrash, we get the backstory for our command to reach out in peace. Earlier, God told Moshe to attack the Amorites, led by King Sihon. But Moshe does not simply attack the Amorites; rather, he sends messengers bearing a message of peace (divrei shalom), to ask to cross their land on the way to Canaan (2:26). The midrash reads these verses as a disagreement between God and Moshe. God preferred simply attacking without warning; but Moshe reached out in peace. This was a learning moment for God, who says to Moshe in the midrash: “למדתני - you have taught Me.”4 Only after watching Moshe does God understand that even acts of war should open with gestures of peace. Following Moshe’s innovation, God then establishes the law in Parashat Shoftim: one must first ask for peace before attacking the enemy.5
I find myself drawn to this understanding of peace in the final blessing of the Amidah.6 If the Amidah is about our aspirations as a people, then perhaps our highest aspiration is one of deep and abiding political peace.7 Opportunities for peace must be the guiding principle in our vision of statecraft.
But this is not the only understanding of the peace God may grant us. In order to explore an alternative meaning of the phrase, we must remember that the Sim Shalom blessing comes directly after Birkat Kohanim and acts as a sort of coda to the core of the Amidah.8 That priestly blessing ends “וישם לך שלום - may God grant you peace” (Numbers 6:26). Our prayer follows the final words of this blessing with a request to bring that promise to fruition (using the same language): “שים שלום - grant peace.”
How does the Rabbinic tradition understand this phrase “may God grant you peace,” which is the basis for our blessing? One approach does indeed view it as future, messianic political peace.9 But another tradition views this peace as much more personal:
ר' חנניה סגן הכהנים אומר "וישם לך שלום" - בביתך.
R. Hananyah, the assistant high-priest says: "And grant you peace” means: in your house.
R. Hananyah teaches that the peace we want God to grant us is not global in scale, but very local: in our own home (shelom bayit). In fact, the same midrash goes on to explain, peace in the home is such an important value that God10 changed the truth in order to preserve it:
גדול השלום ששינה קדוש מפני שלום.
Great is peace, that the Holy One changed [the truth] because of peace.
When Sarah hears that she is going to have a child, she laughs and considers the news impossible because Avraham is too old (Genesis 18:12). But when God reports this to Avraham, God changes Sarah’s claim to: “I (Sarah) am too old.” In God’s telling, Sarah said that she herself, not Avraham, was too old to have a child. The midrash understands this shift—which was contrary to the truth of what Sarah said—as a necessary change in order to keep peace—the peace of the home.11
I am drawn to this understanding of the concept of peace in the Sim Shalom blessing as well. Sometimes I find myself yearning for world peace. But sometimes I feel the need to ask for peace in my own home. It might seem counterintuitive to value peace in the home on a similar level to peace in the world. But knowing that this value of peace at home is so critical—even to the point of defeating the value of truth—helps me appreciate the ways God does not think only about world events at such an impersonal scale, but also values the peace that each of us may find in our individual lives.
There is one additional way to understand what we are asking for when we ask God to grant us peace. Significantly, later on in this same midrash, we learn that one of God’s names is “peace”:
גדול השלום ששמו של הקדוש ברוך הוא קרוי שלום שנא' "ויקרא לו ה' שלום" (שופטים ו כד).
Great is peace, for the name of the Holy Blessed One is “Peace,” as it says: “and he called [the altar] ‘YHVH Peace’” (Judges 6:24).
In the scene to which the midrash alludes, Gideon the Judge names an altar “YHVH [is] peace.” The midrash concludes from this verse that one of God’s names is peace. “The name is based on the peace-bringing and peace-making efforts of God.”13 What, then, would it mean for God to “grant peace”? In this understanding, we are asking for God to show us God’s very presence, represented by the word “Shalom.” In other words, by asking for “peace,” we are asking for God to be close to us.
When I recite the blessing for peace, I think about the many ways in which the word שלום can be understood in the context of this blessing. Sometimes my energy is focused on worldwide political peace. Sometimes I am thinking more personally about peace in my own household. And sometimes I focus on the desire to encounter God—known as Peace—directly.
Sim Shalom is the final blessing of the Amidah, and with it comes the anxiety of departing from the presence of God. Each of these aspects of שלום—political peace, peace in the home, and direct experience of God’s presence—are particularly relevant for me in this moment of concluding my prayer. Focusing on the deep value of שלום—no matter its particular understanding on any given day—sends me forth from this encounter with God with purpose and hope.
4 In the midrash, this is one of three times when God says to Moshe: “למדתני - you have taught me.” One of these is when Moshe argues for the people to be spared following the Golden Calf (because, Moshe argues, God only gave the Torah only to him, not to the whole people). God then says Moshe taught God to speak in the plural, not in the singular. The other is when Moshe convinces God that children should not be punished for the sins of their parents.
5 Other midrashim note that when God asked Moshe why he sent messengers of peace instead of attacking immediately, Moshe replied that he simply learned this approach from the Torah itself (viewing this command as the reason for Moshe’s act—not the result, as in our midrash). See Midrash Aggadah Devarim 2:26, ed. Buber, p. 178. Indeed, according to Tanna de-Vei Eliyahu 8, ed. Friedmann, p. 39, acting out of peace can have a deeper long term political impact than any successful war.
6 The version in the Conservative Movement’s 1946 Siddur added the word בעולם, to formulate the request as “שים שלום טובה וברכה בעולם - grant peace, goodness, and blessing in the world,” which seems to favor this political understanding of the blessing. See Robert Gordis, “A Jewish Prayer Book for the Modern Age,” Conservative Judaism 1 (1945), p. 17. The 1985 edition of the Siddur changed it to “שים שלום בעולם - grant peace in the world.” This phrase appears in Siddur Rav Saadia Gaon (albeit not in the beginning of the blessing, but before the final line). See Siddur Rav Saadia Gaon, eds. Davidson, Assaf and Joel, p. 19. See further Ehrlich, Tefillat ha-Amidah shel Yemot ha-Hol (Jerusalem: Yad Ben Zvi, 2013), p. 264.
8 For this understanding of the blessing and its structural function, see my essay on Parashat Naso, “The End of the Amidah: A Blessing from God.”