The salutation and response, “Shalom Aleichem — Aleichem Shalom,” carries the blessing of unity into the diversity of the world.
It is customary to begin with a blessing when many Jews gather together. Even when only two Jews meet, they start their discussion by saying, “Shalom Aleichem,” which includes all aspects of blessing, for “Shalom (peace) is equal to everything.” They also close their opening salutations with the word Shalom, by answering “Aleichem Shalom.” This reversal of the formula has a significance which should be analyzed.
G-d has given man the role of partnership in creation, therefore after telling us that creation was “good,” the Torah says: “... which the L-rd created to do,” this is interpreted to mean, to “improve,” or “innovate.” The Jew is given the opportunity to share-in creation by effecting an improvement or innovation which did not exist previously. In this way he also has the ability to raise all creation to a higher level.
This role being the goal of our existence it thereby becomes our second nature, so that when one hears the words “Shalom Aleichem,” he is not satisfied with replying simply in the same manner. In order to innovate he will answer “Aleichem Shalom,” thereby confirming the good intention of the salutation of his friend and also innovating and improving upon the words of his friend.
There is a humorous interpretation which says that two Jews can never agree, when one says “Shalom Aleichem” his companion reverses it and says “Aleichem Shalom.” This is not a reversal but rather an improvement.
When we analyze the term “Shalom Aleichem” we are faced with a paradox. “Shalom” connotes peace and unity, whereas ‘Aleichem’ is a plural form which connotes diversity and division. Shalom is also an appellation of G-d, connotating the absolute unity, while Aleichem refers to this “world of separation.”
The salutation, “Shalom Aleichem” and the reply “Aleichem Shalom” seek to unite these two opposing terms, in two distinct approaches. Firstly, the unity imposed from the sublime to the nether, expressed by saying first Shalom and then Aleichem, and secondly by saying Aleichem first and then saying Shalom, to effect a unity from within the diversity and separation — E Pluribus Unum.
Consequently, when one Jew greets another Jew and says “Shalom Aleichem,” the unity which is invoked from the source of the oneness of G-d is understandable and expected. But it is not an innovation. When, however, the second Jew replies, “Aleichem Shalom,” he is saying that the unity shall come from the separation itself! Now this is something really new, a monumental accomplishment; certainly it comes about in a special and unique manner
Several cases by way of illustration are now in order.
When a case was brought before the Sanhedrin to be judged, there usually were different opinions concerning the pros and cons, but after all the discussion took place, a vote was taken and the final ruling had to follow the majority. In other words there was unity forged out of dissent, as everyone accepted the final ruling.
Another example would be the greater quality of light which crystallizes out of the darkness, or the quality of wisdom out of and superseding foolishness. So too, it is fine to superimpose unity on separation from above, but the true innovation and real quality of unity is when the dissention itself chooses oneness and unity crystallizes from diversity. Thus, “Aleichem Shalom” connotes “the unity metamorphosed out of separation.
It should also be added that in the salutation and response of “Shalom Aleichem,” etc., the first word is Shalom and last word is Shalom; this indicates the dictum: “The beginning and the confusion are interconnected.” In fact it is the first word of the salutation, Shalom, which invokes the supernal power of peace and unity in a manner of “from above downwards” (albeit, still in potential) which later evokes the actual effectuation of the unity of separate forces and elements as indicated by the response “Aleichem Shalom.” At the first moment of the initial encounter of two Jews, they agree and proclaim that their goal is to bring peace and unity, thereby creating the potential for the eventual unity out of diversity. This encounter of unity between two Jews may take place at any time, even on a weekday, in any place, even a public domain, and in any milieu. The result will be unity and peace.
The ability which Jews have to bestow unity is truly an important aspect of the overall Divine service of the Jewish people in the world, and consequently, an important part of the personal spiritual duty of every individual Jew. As the Talmud states: “Every person must say, ‘The world was created for me.”‘ Thus, when we realize that the existence of the world is one of varied and diverse parts, we understand that it is our goal to unify and bring together this separation. For this reason we are called: “One nation in the land,” because we cause “oneness” in creation.
Of course this monumental task began with Avraham who, “... caused the name of the Holy One, Blessed be He, to be pronounced by the mouths of all travelers,” in a manner of “G-d [in] world,” which means, that they realized “... that all creation ... exists only by reason of His true existence,” real unity. Avraham’s approach was from “above to below,” (similar to “Shalom Aleichem”). We must continue this activity and reach out to all the many separate parts, in-order to effectuate the ultimate unity out of diversity (similar to Aleichem Shalom). The complete purity and refinement of the world will come about only when all the minutest details of existence will be universally permeated with a revealed sense of G-dliness, as the verse in Yeshayahu states: “The honor of G-d will be revealed and all flesh will see ....” It is therefore necessary that the Jewish people be spread out and separated to reach these extremes.
What differences do we speak of?
The different categories of Yissachar and Zevulun, the scholars, and those who fulfill good deeds, respectively. Furthermore, there are the ten categories from “the heads of your tribes” till “the woodchoppers and water carriers.”
Now, of course every Jew is responsible for all aspects of Torah and mitzvos, nevertheless, there are times when certain experts are more capable of doing certain specific deeds. It may be a mitzvah connected with “the head” or with “water.” In each case the specific details would demand a certain capable individual.
The Prophet Yechezkel said: “... Avraham was one ...” and so, his work did not reach into every individual detail of existence, but when all the Jewish people in their full diversity deal with the minutiae of creation, then we effect a clarity and refinement and raise all the aspects of creation to the ultimate unity and perfection; truly from below to the above (“Aleichem Shalom”).
It should be noted, as mentioned earlier, that in the first word, Shalom, there already exists, in the potential form, the power of unity from diversity; this was also the case with Avraham. In Avraham’s activities we find both the aspect of Torah scholar, and master of good deeds, for he taught the world about the unity of G-d and also exuded kindness and benevolence in his hospitality, which extended itself even to the simple Bedouin, who worshiped the dust of their feet. In his case it was in the potential state; we carry it out into the actual, each one according to his position and level. Avraham himself expressed this idea when he prayed to G-d for children. Turning to the Holy One, Blessed be He, in a rather harsh style, Avraham said: “... what [is all that] you will give me (li), if I remain childless?” All he received from G-d seemed worthless, the “mah” of nonexistence, because he had no offspring to carry an hi R work to the extreme diversity of creation.
Contemplate this point. Being in the lofty position of a “chariot” to G-dliness, and receiving the direct benevolence of G-d who “gives with a liberal spirit,” in a manner which will be eternal, as indicated by the word ‘li,’ all this is worthless and nonexistent, unless it can be transmitted to offspring who will branch out and reach the diversity of existence.
In the personal service of each individual we can also discern these two aspects. The basis of all spiritual service is to accept the yoke of heaven, a general desire to fulfill the will of the Creator; of course this amorphous desire must crystallize into detailed fulfillment of 613 mitzvos.
The Mitteler Rebbe, whose liberation we celebrate on the 10th of Kislev, magnifies this principle in his maamarim (Chassidic discourses) to suggest that one cannot be satisfied with the all encompassing service of G-d. Rather, the perfection is attained in the small details, i.e., the acceptance of the yoke of His kingdom being the “head” or beginning which is “... tied to the conclusion.” The perfection and essential action is the diversity which will be permeated by that fervor and devotion, this being the “conclusion tied to the beginning.”
This theme is also manifest in a farbrengen when many scores of individuals join together under one roof in a shul or house of study, which is a place of unity and holiness. Here the salutation is “Shalom,” our purpose and goal is unity, and this unity must come about from “below to above” to join together the many disparate facets, from “the heads of the tribes” till “the woodchoppers and water carriers” — in a manner of “standing all together” to be united as one!
This idea can also be related to the Torah portion Vayeitzei (from which we leave), and Vayishlach (the portion of this coming week). Yaakov left Beter Sheva, the dwelling place of his father, where he was united with G-dliness, and he went forth to Charan, a place of separation, to fulfill his destiny. At the outset of his odyssey, he was blessed by G-d and was promised that G-d would protect him and return him to his homeland. He was foretold that his children would be as “the sand of the sea which cannot be counted,” and his goals were attained.
So, too, with every Jew, through our actions we can unify the “angels” of Eretz Yisrael with the “angels” of the diaspora and make a “machanayim,” a unity of both. So, when we join together “... as one man, with one heart ...,” to fulfill the directives of “one Torah” given from “G-d, who is One,” this unity nullifies the cause of the exile, which was the opposite of “Ahavas Yisrael,” the unity of Israel. Then, when the cause is destroyed, the effect disappears, leaving us nothing more to accomplish, which automatically and instantaneously merits us the true and complete redemption through our righteous Mashiach, speedily and actually in our days.