The final sacrifice mentioned in the parashah is the zevakh shelamim. This is usually translated as the "peace offering" or "good-will offering.” The word shelamim comes from the same root as shalom/peace and shalem/whole. One contemporary understanding of this sacrifice is as an offering of greeting. According to Baruch Levine and other scholars, it was a meal shared between the priests, the people who brought the offering and God. In other words, through sharing a sacred meal there was a connection being made between the people, the priests and the Divine. Not only was this a meal of greeting, but the sharing of the sacrificial animal could also bring a sense of peace and wholeness that was a direct result of feeling connected to God and community (as represented be the priests).
The sharing of this sacrifice allowed the participants to experience, in a visceral way, the connection that exists between all human beings and remind us of the shelaimut/wholeness and achdut/oneness of existence. And when the final portion of the sacrifice was offered on the altar to God, it was as if God was partaking of the sacrifice along with the priest and the worshipper.
I could not help but beginning comparing this to the Christian ritual of the Eucharist, or Holy Communion. In this ritual, the worshiper partakes of the wafer and the wine that have been consecrated by the priest, minister or Officiant. In the Roman Catholic Church, the doctrine of transubstantiation states that the wine and wafer actually ‘become’ the body and blood of Jesus (I.e., ‘the sacrifice’) when the priest consecrates it. In most other churches, they a representation of his body and blood. In either case, this is a ritual whereby a human being ingests divinity, or its representation.
I must admit that this ritual has always simultaneously intrigued and repelled me. I feel repelled because it seems anathema to the Jewish way of worship. I don’t think I can ever understand it’s true meaning for our Christian brothers and sisters. On the other hand, since in Judaism the actual sacrifice and the concomitant meal have been replaced with the more abstract concept of “prayer as sacrifice,” the idea of this physical ritual has always intrigued me as well.
In my understanding of the ritual of the Eucharist in the Roman Catholic Church (that with which I am most familiar) the sacred meal is also connected to achieving forgiveness for sin as well as connecting to the Divine. This occurs by believing that one is actually ingesting divinity into one’s body (I realize that I am not doing justice to the complexity of Christian theology, and I ask forgiveness from my Christian friends and colleagues for this).
Eating a sacred meal does not make one any more or less holy, nor does the slaughter of the sacrifice by the priest (akin to the consecration of the wafer and wine by Christian clergy today) make the sacrifice holy. Rather, what makes the act and all the participants holy is the recognition of the deeper meaning, that we are all part of God. God is within us all, for we are all One within God.
Just as a fetus floating in a sea of amniotic fluid in a mother’s womb is part of the mother while still a distinct entity, so too are we floating in the sea of Godliness a part of God, yet distinct individuals. Of course, there is a major difference, since in Judaism the fetus is not viewed as an actual life, whereas we are human beings with personalities, character traits and, for better or worse, egos.
However, we must also be cognizant of the fact that, while our ancestors were experiencing this through the sacred meal, God was also ‘partaking’ of the meal in the form of accepting the smoke of the sacrifice. Can the message beneath this part of the ritual be that God is also incomplete without human beings? If we say this, aren’t we exhibiting the exact type of egotistical hubris that we are supposed to be letting go of through this ritual? Perhaps.
When all is said and one, the sacrificial meal and its replacement, the prayer service, are not meant to make God complete. Nor are they meant to make human beings complete. Rather, they are meant to remind human beings of the unity, wholeness and completeness that already exists. Oneness is the essence of existence. Through sacrifice in the past and prayer today, we are reminded of the truth that ‘God is One’ means that all is one withi God. We are all a part of the Divine flow of energy that sustains our universe.
Perhaps the need to have a physical reminder of this Oneness lay behind the development of the Eucharist as a central ritual in Christianity? I have not studied this enough to know. However, I do believe that within Judaism we have tried throughout the centuries to create an experience akin to sacrifice through which we can sense the Oneness at the heart of existence. Prayer as “sacrifice of the heart” as the early rabbis called it, was meant to be a spontaneous, passionate way of experience unity and wholeness.
The Kabbalists (mystics) and Hassidim tried to revive this sense of cleaving to the oneness of divinity through prayer, meditation, deeds of kindness and other “spiritual practices.” Today, we must take all that our tradition has provided for us and determine what works best for us so we can achieve the same goals. However, we also need to remember that the criteria must not be objective, ego-centered ones such as “it feels good to me.” Rather, the main criterion is whether a particular practice enables us to experience the reality of Oneness, completeness and wholeness that we imagine our ancient ancestors felt as they shared a meal with God. This is not easy. Yet, if we simply let go and allow it ti happen, it is much simpler than we imagine. That is the truth.