There are some words that lose their importance and meaningfulness through overuse. Words like awesome and cool, titles like Democrat and Republican, and anything that is preceded by an "i" and a hyphen have been worked to irrelevance. Even words that are meant to express shock and anger – obscenities that describe in crude and rude form an obnoxious man, a complaining woman and human intimacy – have been reduced in their impact because we wink at how commonplace they have become.
Frankly, that fate has overtaken the word "shalom." Back in the 1960s, the Broadway musical about the young State of Israel, "Milk and Honey," included a song about the word that blithely rattles off, "it means bonjour, salud and skoal and twice as much as hello." Today, "shalom" is bandied about as a greeting by Jews and non-Jews seeking to make an impression, and it is invoked as a value without anyone considering what it implies. It's a shame, because the meaning of "shalom" is incredibly profound.
Most of you will not be surprised to hear that translating the word as "peace" is woefully inadequate. Peace really is an ephemeral concept for most of us – something between the absence of conflict and complacency. But shalom means "wholeness" or even "completion." It carries with it the idea of balance, of justice, of fairness. Peace exists on a continuum, shalom is a circle. Of course, a circle that is broken anywhere is no long a circle, and therefore shalom is an idea of comprehensiveness. Greeting someone with "peace" offers the hope of serenity. "Shalom" offers satisfaction, which is not always quite so tranquil, but always more desirable.
Ironically, it is the pursuit of shalom which is often more attractive than shalom itself. The prayer for peace that ends each Amida closes the parentheses that are opened by the very first prayer, which places us in historical context. History loops around and follows an uncertain and unpredictable path. Never knowing what lies around the bend, we are always prepared to learn by serendipity and experience. When history ends, when the broken links are all repaired, then we will have genuine shalom. I am not sure what we will do then, but we seem to have plenty of time before we face that dilemma.