Peace on High

“Oseh Shalom Bimromav”

(Who Makes Peace on High)

Job 20:25


            In Leonard Bernstein’s symphony “Kaddish,” the composer begins the lyrics with a call to an ancient and hallowed Father who has been rejected by the universe. He says that he wants to pray. He wants to say his own kaddish in case there is no one to say it after him. He wants to know when his own life will end and will it be while everyone is singing. He claims to approach God not with fear “but with a certain respectful fury.” The anger gives way eventually to surrender and submission and ends with a call of tenderness: “We are one, after all, You and I; together we suffer, together exist, and forever will recreate each other.” This last line perhaps best represents the prayer struggle on Yom Kippur. We reflect on our own weaknesses but also on a broken world. We have to make peace with ourselves and peace with God.

In the traditional Kaddish, “Oseh shalom bimromav” is perhaps one of the best known lines of Jewish prayer, the line that begins the closing of Kaddish and one we will hear again and again this holiday season. Many people do not recognize that this expression is from the book of Job, lodged in a very specific spiritual context. The kaddish, which today is most associated with mourning, never began that way. It is a product of Babylonian Jewry and is almost two thousand years old. It is written in Aramaic with snatches of Hebrew, pasted together with clauses from the Hebrew Bible. It was originally uttered by rabbis at the end of study or teaching, and this custom is still practiced today. While we do not know exactly why the practice of prayer after study emerged it may have provided an important transition from intellectual to spiritual space or the move from the cognitive to the emotional.

            When the kaddish became associated with mourners, most likely during the medieval period, it became apparent that it functioned as “tziduk ha-din” or the rationalization of God’s judgment. In the Talmud, we are mandated to bless on the bad as we do on the good because as humans we are not aware of a larger master plan where good turns to bad and bad turns to good. What we see and experience never provides the full picture or context of events and emotions. Kaddish never mentions death, it only mentioned praise of God, in accordance with a verse from Ezekiel 38:30 where God says that His name will become enhanced and sanctified and known in the world. These very words form the basis of kaddish’s first line where we are tasked with enlarging God’s name and presence in the world.

            And here is where Job, the ancient Leonard Bernstein, comes in. Job is the Bible’s suffering servant who never lost faith despite the intense difficulties he faced. He was a pawn in a great theological debate between God and Satan. Satan provoked God, waging that people only believe and worship God because their lives are filled with blessings. Take it away and you will take away their faith and loyalty. God pointed to Job as an example of a person whose faith would never cave in due to a change in circumstance. To prove the point, God took apart Job’s life piece by tragic piece. This wager was regarded as so unlikely that the Sages of the Talmud believe that Job was a fictional character, a platform for discussing the theodicy, why bad things happen to good people.

            By the end of the book Job was rewarded with a return of his wealth and children to “replace” those he lost. But before God restored Job’s abundance, God told Job that he would never understand the master plan. There are mysteries he would never plumb, discoveries he would never make. He must walk the world humbly because so much will never be revealed and more will be beyond his control. Connecting kaddish to Job is critical because they accomplish, in many ways, the same outcome. Magnified and sanctified – we acknowledge in our times of grief that so much eludes us.

This theme is central to our prayers on Yom Kippur. We acknowledge that God is the King of Kings, the Father of all Fathers and we can only hope and pray for a good year ahead but what will happen is beyond us. When we read “who makes peace on high” in Job, we are actually acknowledging that God can make peace in the heavens, a place that we will never access. As for peace on earth, that’s our job. It’s a lot harder.  We may never know what happens on high, but that cannot minimize our responsibility and accountability for what happens in the here and now. Magnify and sanctify life. Pray for yourself, your people and the world and then go out and do whatever is in your control to change yourself, your people and the world.


Shabbat Shalom and Shana Tova!