A number of years ago, I picked up the habit of signing off on my letters with “B'Shalom,” which means “in peace.” It just seemed like a pleasant way to end a letter, and so I started using it occasionally, and then all the time.
That is, until Rabbi John Moscowitz, when I was interning for him, told me that I wasn't supposed to do that. According to the Talmud, he taught me, “B'Shalom” was only supposed to be used in reference to the dead. “L'Shalom,” which means “to peace,” or perhaps, more eloquently, “towards peace,” was appropriate when speaking to the living. I made the switch, mostly because it seemed that, if there wasn't a good reason to go against it, it just made sense to follow the tradition on this one. But, I always wondered what the logic was behind it—why would “in peace” and “towards peace” be reserved in this way?
I can remember from whom I learned this, but it came up a couple years ago on one of my rabbinic e-lists. Peace is an ideal. It's what we're striving for in life. But, like any ideal, it's ultimately unreachable. No one, in their lives, will ever truly reach total and ultimate peace. The best that we can hope for is to move, bit by bit, closer towards peace. It doesn't matter if we're talking political or personal; peace is asymptotic. We can get closer, but we can never get there.
The only way we're ever going to truly know complete peace? That's what will happen when we die. Until then, we'll have to settle for more peace tomorrow we have today.
I've always loved that teaching, ever since I heard it. The goal in life is not to achieve perfection, but to move towards it. As Rabbi Tarfon said, your goal is not to complete the task, but not to avoid it, either.