The sacrifice of well-being

Rabbi Andrea Goldstein

By Rabbi Andrea Goldstein

The Book of Leviticus, especially the first few portions, are filled with intricate details of the many types sacrifices God commanded the Israelites to make. In Hebrew, the word for sacrifice is korban, which comes from a Hebrew root, meaning “to draw near.” It was through the sacrifices — mostly animal sacrifices — that the ancient Israelites felt themselves drawing closer to God. 

Each year, when working with bat and bar mitzvah students whose portions come from the Book of Leviticus, I usually have at least one conversation that goes something like this:

Student: “If we don’t make sacrifices any more then why do we still read these Torah portions?”

Me: “Because they are a part of Torah, the most sacred possession of the Jewish people.”

Student: “But if the practices don’t relate to our lives anymore, if we no longer believe that killing animals is a good way to get close to God, why do we have read them?”

Me: “On the surface, it may seem that these verses have no relation to how we live today. But if we dig just a little deeper, we can actually find great meaning in every Torah portion.”

Student: “Like what?”

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Me: “That’s what we are going to explore together.”

Then we begin to study and learn that after the destruction of the Second Temple, when our people were no longer able to offer physical sacrifices, the Rabbis taught us to sacrifice the “offerings of our hearts,” which today we call prayer. If the face of upheaval, fear and uncertainty, the Rabbis were bold enough to imagine a completely different way of drawing close to God, one in which we are still engaged today. Just as there were sacrifices that were meant to atone for mistakes or sins, so we have prayers of forgiveness. Just as there were sacrifices of thanksgiving, so we have prayers of gratitude. And just as there was the sh’lamim offering, an offering of wholeness, of shalom, so we have prayers for peace.

The sh’lamim offering is often translated as the sacrifice of well-being. The Israelites were instructed to bring a sh’lamim offering as an offering of thanksgiving or in the fulfillment of a vow.

I am thinking a lot right now about what the sacrifice of well-being means to us today, and how suddenly, an ancient (and, some would say, meaningless) practice seems very relevant to our lives. I am thinking about bar and bat mitzvah families and wedding couples who have postponed their simchas in order to model and practice social distancing in the hopes of keeping the community safe and slowing down the spread of COVID-19. 

A sacrifice of well-being.

I am thinking of all of the doctors and nurses and technicians and custodial staffs and pharmacists and drugstore/grocery workers and delivery people and food pantry volunteers and so many more who are, of course, taking precautions, but still potentially risking their health and the health of their families for a greater good.

A sacrifice of well-being.

I am thinking of businesses of all sizes and non-profits and synagogues that are doing all they can to continue to pay their workers even while they are losing income.

A sacrifice of well-being.

And so many more. Biblical commentator Nehama Leibowitz, in her New Studies in Vayikra, notes that the sacrifice of well-being is unique in that there is no petition connected to it. The offerer brings a gift, yet asks nothing of God in return, motivated only by what Naphtali Herz Weisel calls “an abundance of joy, of gratitude to God.” And though nothing is asked for, in the making of the offering, a feeling of well-being, a feeling of wholeness and peace, come to the one who has made the sacrifice. 

During these times of uncertainty and fear, may we continue to make these sacrifices of well-being for ourselves, for each other, for our communities, for our world. May we do so, when we can, with gratitude and with joy. And in doing so, may we open ourselves to feelings of wholeness and calm, of peace and of connection with the Holy One. 

Rabbi Andrea Goldstein serves Congregation Shaare Emeth and is a member of the St. Louis Rabbinical and Cantorial Association, which coordinates the d’var Torah for the Light.