If there is one tefillah that succinctly and eloquently expresses what a Jew wants in life, it is the special tefillah of Birkat HaChodesh we recite in ushering in the new month. A new month, in secular society, is not necessarily noteworthy. One may have to flip the calendar, but the first day of the month is not inherently unique from any other day. Not so in Jewish tradition.
As our calendar is lunar, every time a new month comes, we honor it as a mo’ed, and even before the mo’ed arrives, we bless the coming month with Birkat HaChodesh. In this tefillah, we ask for: longevity of life, a life of peace, a life of goodness, a life of blessing, a life of prosperity. If we stop there, we can discern not only what a Jew wants, but what a human being wants from life. And each of these characteristics is preceded by the word “life.” We repeat this word eleven times in the prayer. We first ask for a long life, but then we ask for a life of peace. If the first request is for life itself, the second request is a top priority in what we expect in terms of quality of life.
Hashem promises in our parasha that if we follow the Torah, “I will provide peace in the land, and you will lie down with none to frighten you” (Vayikra 26:6).
Interestingly, the order of blessings here is different than it is in our requests in Birkat HaChodesh. There, peace comes first, and then blessing and prosperity. In Bechukotai, however, we are told that our crops will grow, we will eat well, even that we will dwell securely in our land. Only then does the Torah tell us that Hashem will provide peace, and we will thereby have no need to fear terror.
Commentators wonder: what is the significance of the order of the blessings? And if we are told we will dwell securely, then what does the mention of the providence of peace add to this?
Rashi explains: Perhaps one will say, “Here is food, and here is drink.” I have what I need, I can be happy! Therefore, Rashi says, “Im ein shalom, ein kloom” – if there is no peace, we have nothing. R. Zalman Sorotzkin explains in Oznayim LaTorah that what Rashi is trying to tell us is that we may dream of prosperity and an abundance of delicacies. We may salivate at the thought of comfort and even luxury. But none of this is of value if there is no peace. If you cannot enjoy the accumulated abundance, then there is nothing to gain.
As to the second question, why we need to be told both that we will dwell securely and that Hashem will provide peace, R. Sorotzkin explains that “peace” is greater than “security.” Living securely, having good security, means that if you need to fight, you have a good chance of winning. The idea of dwelling securely means that we put up high, metal, impenetrable gates and we hired the best security firm. We trust our guards that they’re better than anyone else. The modern Hebrew word for “security” – in terms of guards, protection – is bitachon. But is that what we really want? Would we not rather want to have peace, without the need for the “bitachon?” That is what shalom is; we will not have to worry about a thing. Im ein shalom, ein kloom.
While this pasuk applies to Jews in Eretz Yisrael, it’s clear this is an aspiration for everyone. Everyone wants to live in shalom. And for us to experience shalom, there has to be a sense that shalom is the mindset of everyone around us.
But we still live in a world that lacks shalom and frankly contains a lot of fear.
Especially in the United States. I wrote these words of Torah a year ago after shootings in a supermarket in Buffalo and a school in Texas. Things have not gotten better. We still hear almost daily of mass shootings in our country, and when we do not hear, it is often because shootings have become so common, lo aleinu, that they are almost not “news” anymore. We think that in America, we have the blessings of being citizens of a well-developed country where there are superior opportunities for us. But im ein shalom, ein kloom. None of our prosperity is worthwhile if we cannot live the blessings of America without the worry or reality of mass murder. Furthermore, for the family and friends of those massacred in all of these shootings, the loss of life is the loss of everything. Parents put everything in for the sake of their children. But im ein shalom, ein kloom. Of course, the victims’ family and friends will have things in their lives that they value. But a big part of them will be missing. In moments of grief, it will feel like the loss of everything that mattered.
There is another important element Ramban highlights in understanding what it means for there to be shalom in our land. While on some level, the peshat of the verse may seem like Hashem’s blessing is the promise of stymied enemies, Ramban in fact says that not only will Bnei Yisrael not be attacked by enemies, but brethren will not fight against each other. An aspect of the mass shootings that is so troubling is the attack of Americans on each other, and the act of violence between two Americans is the antithesis of what peace is supposed to bring. The frequent occurrence of these attacks tells us what the state of shalom is in our vicinity. It is disturbing and distressing.
Last week, I attended a conference entitled “Facing the Gun Violence Epidemic: The Voices of Faith and Community” at UJA-Federation, run in conjunction with the Jewish Community Relations Council. The speakers at the event came from a variety of religious, racial, and professional backgrounds. Each wanted to envision a world without gun violence. Each represented different experiences in facing and fighting this epidemic. In 2021, there were nearly 50,000 deaths by firearms, while there were around 42,000 deaths caused by vehicular collisions. Gun deaths are the leading cause of death among children. These deaths are the result of a combination of homicide and suicide. The CEO of Northwell Health, Michael Dowling, shared with us that he believes this is the leading public health crisis in the United States today.
I think we can all agree that the mass shootings are disturbing. We want them to stop.
What has been divisive within our country, however, is how to prevent them.
In a rabbinic role, I will not prescribe the proper legislative process to deal with this issue. The speakers shared a variety of strategies needed to be employed, including the addressing of mental health concerns and increasing good policing. As far as the law is concerned, I understand the perspective that we should make it harder for the wrong people to get guns and reduce the availability of guns altogether for that purpose. Especially as children are concerned, there is a need to make it much harder for a child to be able to access a gun. I also understand those who feel strongly about the Second Amendment concerns, and those who feel that responsible gun owners should have the right to defend themselves.
But what is not an option is to do nothing. And this is a halachic issue. Of the seven mitzvot of Bnei Noach, which apply to all societies, one of them is the prohibition of murder. Yet another one is that each society must set up proper governance to both prosecute and prevent the violation of other mitzvot. Society must put the proper structures in place to prevent murder (see Rambam, Hilchot Melachim 9:14).
The American Psychological Association has excellent resources that discuss the multidisciplinary approach to preventing gun violence. What I urge our community to do is not so much about pushing a particular approach or policy, but to find a facet of this issue that speaks to you. For those who feel strongly about a particular legislative approach, advocate and donate to those efforts. For those who are driven by the mental health and substance abuse aspects of these issues, advocate and donate to those efforts. But given that this issue affects us all, while we may passionately disagree about how we take action, let our differences not prevent us from doing the holy work of increasing life.
And most of all, once we have done hishtadlut, we must all recognize that tackling such an issue is beyond any one of us and requires siyata dishmaya. Thoughts and prayers do matter. I pray that we have the fortitude to work together as a society, people of all faiths and communities, to find our common ground. We must all daven for Hashem to “provide peace in the land,” and we should all “lie down and none shall terrify.” As we say Birkat HaChodesh next Shabbat, we must pray for longevity of life and peace, thereby, we will be able to cultivate a flourishing society.