Shalom Alechem is a liturgical poem traditionally sung on Shabbat eve prior to the recital of Kiddush. It consists of a welcome, a request for a blessing, and a farewell to the angels.This blog provides several mystical explanations as to the meaning of this enchanting interaction with celestial beings.
THE SHALOM ALECHEM LITURGICAL POEM:
Peace unto you, ministering angels, messengers of the Most High, of the supreme King of Kings, the Holy One blessed be He.
May your coming be in peace, angels of peace, messengers of the Most High, of the supreme King of Kings, the Holy One blessed be He.
Bless me with your peace, angels of peace, messengers of the Most High, of the supreme King of Kings, the Holy One blessed be He.
May your departure be in peace, angels of peace, messengers of the Most High, of the supreme King of Kings, the Holy One blessed be He.
Learning to let go
Another explanation for why we bid the angels in the Shalom Alechem poem farewell so soon can be seen in the concept of letting go.
One of the greatest causes of our suffering is our inability to ‘let go’ of blessings that depart from our lives. Be it a possession, a friend, or a state of being, on account of our tenacious grip on these things, we feel resentment, excessive grief, and even depression in having to part with them.
This phenomenon overtly and frequently occurs in children. Following a treat of some sort a child often cries for more or expresses resentment instead of feeling grateful toward those that provided them with these enjoyable experiences. Ironically, it is not uncommon for children to feel miserable immediately after a treat that was intended to bring them happiness.
This behaviour is not limited to children. Adults are also incapable of graciously ‘letting go’ of valuable experiences and possessions. Indeed, how do we learn to ‘let go’?
There are two general ways that a person can effectively learn to part with something:
1. By coming to the realization that, relative to truly important and enduring things, the item that one is attached to is only trivial or transient.For instance, one may learn to ‘let go’ of the need to impress people with fine clothing by realizing that, in comparison to one’s intellect and character traits, clothes are merely an appendage. The person will then attempt to impress people with his personality rather than his clothing. One can then proceed to learn to ‘let go’ of the need
Though this approach helps one relinquish objects of attachment, one is not learning to ‘let go’ of something which he deems valuable, but, on the contrary, he learns to view the object in question with contempt. For, it is specifically on account of him developing displeasure or, at the least, disinterest in the object that he is able ‘let go’ of it. Clearly, this is not the ultimate form of ‘letting go’, for the person may still be incapable of ‘letting go’ of that which he still deems important.
Moreover, many people who successfully learn to ‘let go’ through this orientation still harbor resentment. Not because they are disappointed by the loss of the object, but on account of them having wasted so much time focusing on it in the past, before they discovered its insignificance.
2. By realizing that everything that we have is essentially on ‘loan’ from G-d, and that ultimately nothing is our own; not physical possessions, not spiritual experiences, and not even our own souls. (See the acknowledgement that we make every morning immediately upon awakening, “I thank You Eternal and Living King for returning my soul to me with mercy”.)
King David humbly expressed this state of consciousness when he declared, “From You comes all, and it is from Your own hand that we give to You”. Meaning not only is everything that a person possesses from G-d, but the human ability to utilize items in the service of G-d – to ‘give’ to G-d - through the fulfillment of mitzvot, is from G-d as well. When a person attains this awareness, the humility that accompanies it is profound. It is characterized by a sense that even one’s very existence is a merciful gift from G-d of which one is undeserving, and for which one must be extremely grateful.
An episode that epitomizes the latter state of consciousness is recorded in the Talmud:
During one Shabbat Rabbi Meir’s two cherished sons tragically fell ill and passed away. His wife, Bruria, discovered them. In her determination to keep the news of the tragedy secret from her husband until after Shabbat, so as not to disturb his Shabbat peace, she placed them in one of her upstairs rooms and covered them with a blanket. At the conclusion of Shabbat, Bruria had the most difficult task of informing her husband of the devastating news. She did so by asking her husband a question, “Many years ago someone left me their precious jewels to take care of and has now returned to collect them. Should I return them to him?” Assuming that she was asking for a legal opinion, Rabbi Meir answered, “Of course, and you should feel satisfied that you have faithfully guarded these jewels, and can return them to their rightful owner.” Bruria then led him upstairs, showed him their children and said, “G-d left two precious jewels in our care. Today he came and took them back.”
Based on this teaching, we can appreciate another profound message contained in the Shalom Alechem poem. The Shalom Alechem poem provides us with a glimpse into the manner in which a truly saintly individual interacts with reality. He welcomes all blessings into his life with the realization that they are to be utilized to serve G-d, as the first stanza of the poem states, “Come in peace serving angels” – angels that I use to serve G-d. And, throughout the duration of their enjoyable presence in his life, he is aware that they are not his, but only on ‘loan’ to him from G-d. Thus, he does not hold on to them tenaciously, but rather, affectionately reminds them that they are free to depart whenever they wish to. If the angels choose to leave, he will not take their departure as an affront, nor will he feel resentment toward them for having deprived him of a benefit; instead, he will show them gratitude for having so generously enriched his life. This attitude is expressed in the final stanza of the poem, “Leave in peace angels of peace”.
When we sing the verses of Shalom Alechem, we need to identify with the words so strongly that we feel we are genuinely expressing the poetic sentiments. This serves as a meditative practice that helps us train ourselves to interact properly with the blessings that enter and depart our lives on a daily basis.
Parenthetically, there is an answer to a slightly different question regarding the Shalom Alechem poem that offers an altogether different approach on dealing with having to ‘let go’. If the Shabbat angels remain with us for the entire duration of Shabbat, why do we bid them farewell at the very onset of Shabbat? Rather, we are concerned that over the course of Shabbat we may become so attached to the presence of the Shabbat angels that by the end of Shabbat we will indeed be incapable of letting them go and saying goodbye. It is for this reason that we bid them farewell at the beginning of Shabbat when they have just arrived, and our attachment to them is still weak.
Even though this practice may have its place, it is definitely not as wise as learning how to actually ‘let go’ - or perhaps, how to hold on with affection rather than with tenaciousness.