An Offering of Wholeness
Despite all the detail in Parashat Tzav, it is not entirely clear what is meant by the zevah sh’lamim – often translated as “peace offering” or “offering of well-being”. It is clearly differentiated from the other sacrifices in our parashah because the worshipper participates in its ritual offering, and receives part of the animal for him or herself. In all the other sacrifices in the parashah, it is only the priests who take part in the ritual and the consumption of the sacrifice.
But beyond this difference, what does zevah sh’lamim really mean? Commentators differ in their interpretations, but the explanation of Rabbi David Tzvi Hoffman, an outstanding rabbi of 19th and early 20th century Germany, is appealing to me:
“Sh’lamim is derived from the root meaning ‘peace’ or ‘perfect’ (shalem). It signifies the state of mind of the worshipper who enjoys peace and contentment and recognizes that this has been achieved thanks to his cleaving to God. Or it may be that he seeks to attain such a state of perfection and deliverance, since at present he suffers from despair and longs for God to help him and restore his equilibrium. All this he expresses through the sh’lamim, seeking his own peace and well-being through cleaving to God.” (Commentary on Leviticus)
Many of us can relate to both parts of Rabbi Hoffman’s comments. On the one hand, as I watch with love the unbridled joy in the face of my five-year-old son as he jumps and runs and tumbles on mats at his birthday party – he and his whole class of children with special needs – I am deeply moved, and I am deeply grateful. He has overcome so many hurdles – he and his classmates – and they are able to speak and relate and chase bubbles and do somersaults with tremendous confidence. He beams as he leads his classmates in a “train” to the next fun-filled activity; he is on top of the world and so am I. And I watch the faces of the other parents and see them feeling the same way. What will our zevah sh’lamim be? Perhaps a substantial contribution to the school which has nurtured them so patiently and so lovingly. And perhaps a heartfelt prayer during the Amidah in thanks to God for bringing us to this moment of such happiness. We understand the feeling in the heart of the worshipper who, in ancient times, brought his offering of well-being.
And, on the other hand, there are those moments – not a few – when the pain of missing my dead brother is so acute, I just want to roll up in a ball and disappear. I am in deep despair, and long for God to help me to “restore my equilibrium.” What, then, is my zevah sh’lamim – my offering in hopes of wholeness and well-being? My offering is often a prayer, a soulful prayer, a reaching out to God, a cry from within my soul, to give me strength to live through these moments, to give me a way to make sense of something which makes no sense at all, to give me some meaning to a life cut much too short, to give me a way of understanding how Jonathan’s life was a good life – even if it ended too soon. And so I understand, and many of us understand, the feeling in the heart of the worshipper who, in ancient times, brought herzevah sh’lamim – looking for sh’laymut – wholeness – where brokenness was the overriding feeling.
I pray that Rabbi Hoffman’s teaching will help us understand that we all have moments in which to bring God our zevah sh’lamim – moments in which we are deeply grateful because we feel an abiding sense of wholeness – and moments in which we are in such despair that we long for that wholeness. And I pray that we will be given the motivation and the strength to both thank God from the bottom of our hearts, and also beseech God from the depth of our hearts and souls – and that, when we pray, we will be heard and we will be helped.
The publication and distribution of the JTS KOLLOT: Voices of Learning commentary has been made possible by a generous gift from Sam and Marilee Susi.