In 1955, the husband-and-wife songwriting team of Sy Miller and Jill Jackson wrote a song about their desire for world peace and what they believed individuals could do to bring their dream to fruition. They decided to teach their new work to a group of high school students who were attending a weeklong retreat focusing on multicultural understanding. At the conclusion of the weekend, 180 teens from diverse racial, economic, and cultural backgrounds stood arm-in-arm on a mountain in California and joined together, singing “Let There be Peace on Earth.”
The lyrics of the song were so simple, yet so universal. The song was adopted as an anthem for Human Rights Day and United Nations Day. Both the Kiwanis Club and B’nai Brith began singing it at their gatherings. It spread internationally, and was even translated into languages such as Maori and Zulu. Performers as diverse as Danny Kaye, Liberace, and The Boston Pops recorded it. It received a Brotherhood Award from the National Council of Christians and Jews.
Peace, hopefully, is a goal shared by many — if not all — human beings. The idea that we are responsible for bringing peace to this world did not originate with Jackson and Miller’s lyrics; they simply gave us a new means of expressing this concept. Psalm 122 expresses: “For the sake of my brothers and my friends, I will bid you peace,” and the Gospel of Luke proclaims, “Glory to God in the highest; peace on earth and good will to men.”
But our religious texts are not the only sources of our prayers for peace. We should have an innate hunger for peace — for shleimut: wholeness and completeness — that can come only when the diverse peoples of the world find a way to live in brotherhood and harmony.
As I write these words, world leaders are gathered in Annapolis, Maryland, to once again attempt to bring a solution to the ongoing struggles in the Middle East. The hope is that a viable solution can be negotiated that will recognize Israel’s security needs and her right to exist while also protecting the rights and interests of others in the region.
I, for one, am hopeful that concrete steps will be taken toward settling these matters. I am also fearful that concrete steps will be taken toward settling these matters. There are a myriad of complex — and at times, painful — issues that must be grappled with before all parties will be able to exchange their enmity for brotherhood, replace their pessimism with hope, and set aside their self-interests in favor of the interests of all humanity.
Psalm 34 adjures us: “Seek peace and pursue it.” We do so not for ourselves, but for those who will come after us. The prophet Isaiah taught that in the Messianic age, “All your children shall be taught of God, and great shall be the peace of your children.” The Midrash suggests that we should not read this as banayich, “children,” but rather as bonayich, “builders.” It will be our children who find hope in a discouraging world, and who sow the seeds of justice and peace.
At this season of Hanukkah, when we light our candles to dispel darkness from the world, let us kindle a beacon for peace. As we recall the valiant efforts of the Hasmoneans in the face of an enemy more powerful and more numerous than they were, let us draw strength from their courage. The struggle for peace is daunting, yet it is very worthwhile.
The day is short, the task is great, and the Master of the house is pressing. It is not up to us to complete the task, but neither are we at liberty to abstain from it.
We Jews understand that peace begins with each of us as individuals; our striving for tikkun olam derives from our appreciation that we must work in partnership with God to make this world a better place. Thus we pray at the conclusion of our worship services, in the final lines of the Mourner’s Kaddish, “Oseh shalom bim’romav hu ya’aseh shalom aleinu v’al kol Yisrael, v’imru: Amen” — “may the One who makes peace in the heavens make peace descend upon us and all Israel, and let us say: Amen.”
To the prayer “hu ya’aseh shalom” — “may God cause peace to descend,” we may add our own prayer, “anachnu na’aseh shalom” — “we can (and will) bring about peace.”
Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with us.