The Book of Vayikra (Leviticus), which we recently began, focuses on ritual matters, primarily, the details of offerings, including burnt offerings, sin offerings (separate ones to atone for deliberate transgressions and inadvertent failings) and guilt offerings … and what is usually translated as the “peace” offering.
Now, the “peace offering,” of course, doesn’t have to do with a cessation of hostilities, but comes from the root shin-lamed-mem, which denotes both shalom — peace — and shlemut, a character of wholeness. Wholeness is especially relevant to us in these times, when a moment of hope for the other kind of peace presents on the horizon a two-state solution between the Israelis and Palestinians.
“Peace offerings” are brought for gratitude, generosity or the completion of a task one has promised. Shlemut, wholeness, is not a state of non-violence, but a fulfillment of obligations, a righting of wrongs, an acknowledgement of the way things should be, and an opportunity to build trust between parties.
Our tradition mandates the pursuit of peace — not at any cost, but as part of this value of shlemut. When Pirkei Avot (1:18) tells us that the world stands on din (law/justice), emet (truth) and shalom, we should understand that these three things together are a roadmap of what is expected of us in order to achieve shlemut.
And this is a moment for shlemut. In the Torah, peace is not something that happens to us, but is something that we must construct; that we are obligated to create. Thus, of the only four things mentioned that the Talmud says are rewarded both in this life and in the next, one is making peace. The rabbis elaborate, citing Psalm 34:15 — “Seek peace and pursue it” — and linking it to the concepts of both righteousness and mercy.
If we are willing to be courageous, we can do it. For the last seven months, Secretary of State John Kerry has worked to bring peace and security to Israel by laying the groundwork for two states. Meanwhile some of the “official” voices of the Jewish community and the extremists in the Israeli government have often undermined the work that is ultimately for our benefit.
The nine months are nearly up and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu continues to allow settlements to be built and to “legalize” outposts.
The Torah says of the peace offering that it must be eaten on the same day it is offered — or in the case of a generosity offering or in fulfillment of a vow, it can be eaten on the next day as well. But no matter what kind of peace offering it is, on the third day, anything that remains must be burned; at that point, it cannot be eaten, it won’t be accepted, and it will contaminate anyone who has anything to do with it (Leviticus 7:18).
That’s strong language for what was just a bit of procrastination. Perhaps with something as important as fulfilling one’s promises, delay is not acceptable. Even for wholeness, even for generosity, there are limitations.
Last year’s endlessly discussed Pew Report showed that American Jews largely support peace and two states; but we also believe that Israel could be doing more to achieve it. A study released by the Jewish Council for Public Affairs around the same time showed that many rabbis are afraid to talk honestly about Israel. Not for no reason: There are powerful voices in our community who are mired in a vision of the world that has no room for the reality of Israel — a modern state that stands at a precipice. The United States can work to offer security, but if we are not courageous enough to do what is necessary — to stop building settlements — then Israel is at great risk of going over that cliff.
The Israeli Declaration of Independence, the “mission statement” of the state, declares that Israel “will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the holy places of all religions; and it will be faithful to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations.”
We are considering whether or not to eat that “peace offering,” but it is already the second day. It is not too late, but we need to act now, to be generous of spirit, to have courage, to stand behind Secretary Kerry and insist that our leaders do, too.
It is now time to fulfill those vows and achieve wholeness.
This article first appeared in the Washington Jewish Week on March 19, 2014.