By Rabbi Geri Newburge
Our tradition teaches that yes, we do (or maybe that we should)! For instance, the splitting of the Red Sea and the daily manna from heaven were miracles; even the proper functioning of our bodily systems is considered a miracle, and a blessing is recited for that every day.
One aspect of this week’s Torah portion, Tzav, from the book of Leviticus, offers additional insight into the miracles we experience. While most of the laws of the various sacrifices are detailed in Vayikra, last week’s portion, Tzav spotlights the laws of the zevach shlamim, the peace offering.
When the zevach shlamim is first presented in the parsha, the great sage Rashi teaches that this particular sacrifice is offered to give thanks to the Holy One for a personal miracle. Such miracles include making a sea voyage and returning safely, surviving a journey through the desert, being imprisoned and then released, or recovering from an illness. Today, we recite the blessing known as Birkat HaGomel when experiencing such extraordinary events.
Yet, in many other rabbinic texts, a miracle is not required to proffer the zevach shlamim. It should come as no surprise that peace is considered the ideal state of affairs in Jewish tradition. In fact, the rabbis in Leviticus Rabbah 9:9 claim all blessings are contained within peace, and they point out several instances in the Torah when someone speaks misleadingly in order for people to live in peace.
The Hebrew word shalom has a range of meanings. We teach our religious school students it translates as “hello,” “goodbye” and “peace,” yet that fails to convey the depth of the word. The word shalom is found more than 200 times in the Hebrew bible and encompasses a diversity of meanings, including peaceable agreements or accord between individuals (family members or leaders) as well as nations, and the rabbis offer numerous midrashim on many of these occurrences.
The miracle of peace is a virtue ingrained in Jewish practice and ritual. Every service, weekday, Shabbat and festival, includes prayers for peace; we recite them at the end of the Amidah, after Silent Prayer, when we conclude the Mourner’s Kaddish, a prayer we utter when we are most bereft, asking God to make peace descend upon us, and the most beautiful blessing of all, the Priestly Benediction, is ultimately one of peace.
Shalom is also about wholeness, completeness. Perhaps the rabbis were onto something when they taught, “The world is maintained by three things, by justice, by truth and by peace.” Rav Muna added, “These three actually are one. If justice is present then truth is present, and this makes peace. And all three are found in the same verse, as it is written, ‘Judge with the justice of truth and peace within your gates.’” In other words, peace, in and of itself, is not possible without an ethical society. Our sages teach us that there must be justice to experience peace.
It is impossible to ignore the significance of this particular offering our ancestors made and what it represents, either in thanksgiving or in fulfillment of a vow or donation. We are living through unprecedented and terrifying times. As I write this piece, Russia instigated a war with Ukraine, its president a targeted man, its citizens living under a 5 p.m. curfew, hundreds of thousands of citizens having fled or are fleeing, and hundreds of innocent lives have been lost.
The Israelites were instructed to bring the sacrifices “near” to God. They are meant to draw us closer to God and to that which is sacred and, in the case of the zevach shlamim, to peace. We have an active role in bringing about peace, with each other and with God.
Finding that path was not easy for our ancestors, nor will it be easy for us. We will need to advocate for Ukraine politically and with social services and extend financial and other support to the refugees and the survivors to live up to the ideals ingrained in our tradition.
Perhaps the zevach shlamim, peace offering, is the greatest miracle of all. May the people of Ukraine, and all those living in fear and with illness, be granted this miracle. May we carry on the sacred work of our ancestors, dedicating ourselves to peace and wholeness for children, grandchildren and the generations to come. JE
Rabbi Geri Newburge serves at Main Line Reform Temple-Beth Elohim in Wynnewood. The Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia is proud to provide diverse perspectives on Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent. The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of the Board of Rabbis.