This form of greeting is traditional among Jews throughout the world. The greeting is more common amongst Ashkenazi Jewish. It first found in Bereishit (Genesis) 43:23 and occurs six times in the Jerusalem Talmud. Only the plural form is used even when addressing one person. A religious explanation for this is that one greets both the body and the soul, but Hebrew does occasionally use the plural as a sign of respect (e.g. a name of God is Elohim אלוהים literally gods).
I was sitting in my Sunday school class getting ready for the discussion and mentally dissecting the sermon given by one of the Associate Pastor’s half an hour before when I woman I’d never met before walked up to me and said, “Shalom aleichem.” I was momentarily taken aback, but I returned the same greeting and we struck up a conversation. I started talking about how “Jewish” the Messiah would be upon his return and that a lot of people would be surprised when he returned as the Jewish King, ruling with a rod of iron from Jerusalem. We discussed how “every knee will bow” in acknowledgement of the King, not because they reasoned it out or even because their hearts became soft to God, but because Messiah is King! He will rule the world. It will be obvious.
Strange conversation but it’s not the point of this missive.
We got back around to her interesting way of greeting me. I told her I had assumed that she said it because she knew my wife and kids were Jewish. That wasn’t it. She had no idea who I was and who my family is. She isn’t Jewish either and doesn’t speak Hebrew, so that’s not it. In fact, she’s a fairly traditional Christian. I’m not sure Kathy (that’s her name) really knew why she greeted me with “Shalom aleichem.” Understanding that, I assumed it was something God had to say to me in relation to my recent cultural and spiritual hollowness. I think it was God’s way of saying to me that I’m not as disconnected and isolated as I think.
That said, Sunday school class was “interesting” but sometimes in an almost dismaying way. That’s only because of something called Bible Study Fellowship and a fellow named John MacArthur, whose interpretation of the Bible is heavily leveraged by our Sunday school teacher Dean.
Dean’s a nice guy. I like him. He’s not always very flexible, though. He tends to take MacArthur and run with him, so to speak, forgetting that Bible interpretation isn’t the same thing as established and immutable fact. How Dean tied 1 Peter 3:18-20, Chapter 12 of Revelation and the “demon possessed humans” in Genesis 6:1-4 made me almost chew my tongue right off (metaphorically…my tongue is quite intact, thank you very much).
Shalom aleichem vs. the “culture” of Bible Study Fellowship. Oh my.
But I was reminded that a significant portion of our class time was spent praying for others. For people with cancer. For people who are out of work. For people who are old and slowly dying. And more than that, we talked and planned how we, as human beings, would be the answer to the prayers we could answer (we can’t cure cancer, but we can offer other assistance). Part of the lesson from 1 Peter 3 was all about being people designed to help others, how God would enable us to do what we thought we couldn’t do, how we should be eager to do good, how we would be blessed and yes, how we would be sometimes punished, just for doing good.
One guy gave a reasonable description of Tikkun Olam without ever having heard the term before. Really, he reminded me of a Rabbinic commentary I’d read recently. Something about how we are all created in the image of God and in His image, we are designed to do good. Only the “brokenness” of the world and our own “brokenness” get in the way.
At the end of class, Charlie, the guy sitting next to me, said he admired my ability to keep quiet when I obviously had something to say (good thing I don’t play poker). That helped to defuse some of my frustration at MacArthur and how he was being applied. Yes, there are other opinions besides MacArthur’s, but the flip side to some of these little puzzles we discuss is that what we are really supposed to be doing as children of God and disciples of the Master isn’t hard to figure out. Charlie also reminded me that we have this sign out in the foyer to the church:
He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?
God is listening to me after all, He’s paying attention…and He responded to me today.