Peace, My Friends

By Rabbi Randy Fleisher

I had the great blessing a few years ago of officiating a wedding in Hawaii. The chuppah was set on a lush green space with the Pacific Ocean as an alluring background.  The handful of friends and family had traveled to witness the union of a Jewish groom from the Midwest and a Buddhist bride from Japan.  Because the bride’s family did not speak English, a translator was on hand throughout the ceremony.  

At the reception, held on the same beautiful grounds, we were left to our own communication devices.  The bilingual couple did their best to connect the English speakers to the Japanese speakers, but after a while, embarrassed by the ease in which we reverted to bifurcated conversations, the group fell into a long silence.

Suddenly, we heard a soft and lovely voice.  It was the bride’s mother sweetly, smilingly singing “Shalom Chaverim!”  As it turned out, this woman taught nursery school in Japan and taught the children in her class songs from a diversity of lands and cultures.  Her effort succeeded in finally breaking the ice, and we proceeded with the celebration, finding creative and satisfying ways to interact with one another.

In the portion of Noah, after the story of the “great” flood, there is a very short tale popularly known as the Tower of Babel.  The people in the time of the story had one language and one set of words, but after conspiring with one another to overtake heaven, God baffled their languages and scattered them all over the earth and they were left unable to communicate with others in different places.

Jewish Renewal’s Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi talks about language as not only a set of unique words, but also about group-specific ideas, traditions, and folkways — in short, the various cultures.  I am so thankful for the rich diversity of ‘languages’ that exist on Earth. At the same time, I am glad we seem to be overcoming the ‘baffling’ part of the equation.  More and more, we are finding ways to cross-culturally connect to one another, learn from one another, and understand each other.  While gracefully, efforts to unite the myriad of cultures under the banner of ‘one language’ have gained little traction, many of us have become conversant in other tongues; some people are like ‘Anglophiles,’ born into one culture, but become more comfortable with another; and many of us feel more free than ever to learn from and borrow from the ‘vocabulary’ of distant neighbors.

I believe it is imperative that this reaching across our linguistic boundaries continues to strengthen. Our ‘baffling’ and ‘scattering’ has given us a multiplicity of traditions.  We must understand and draw on the best in each one, not to topple heaven, but to save our Earth from the kind of disaster that has threatened all creation from the time of Noah.  May we learn and live the message of ‘Shalom Chaverim’ (Peace, My Friends) in every language.