Parashat Tzav: Peace Porridge

(For Congregation Ner Shalom)

Anyone hungry? This week’s Torah portion, Tzav, gives us a very valuable recipe: a recipe for healing and peace.

That sounds like a tall order, I know. And it’s not exactly a recipe. And like my great grandmother's best recipes, there are no quantities listed, and like my recipes, the results are not guaranteed. But Torah’s suggestion of what some essential ingredients of peace might be – peace both personal and political – cannot be disregarded.

The recipe comes in the course of instructions for, yes, ritual sacrifices. This is the kind of detailed and grisly subject matter that typically keeps the book of Leviticus far away from our pile of bedside reading.

But in this parashah, we get special instructions for “Peace Offerings.”

Now understand that at the time of the Temple, we didn’t have a system of communal prayer, and if there was any tradition of personal prayer or meditation, its neither mandated in Torah nor documented there. So making offerings of livestock and food was the primary ritual way that Jews made supplication to God – for forgiveness, for permission, for healing. In our generation we are used to contemplative practices that are private and quiet. Or communal prayer and song which, even if rowdy, take place in enclosed, orderly spaces. To us the idea of thousands of people hauling their livestock to a Temple, in the heat, with the smells and the flies and the noise, seems, well, less than conducive to a spiritual experience. Can you imagine any of us there? “Excuse me, could you keep that cow quiet? I’m having a personal breakthrough. Thanks. Catch you at oneg.” But even though it feels alien to us, this was a profound personal experience for the Jews at the time and is the parallel of so much of the soul-searching work that we now do internally or in community.

So, the section begins:

וזאת תורת זבח השלמים אשר יקריבו ל־ה

"This is the teaching about the shlamim offering which shall be offered up to Adonai." Shlamim is a beautifully ambiguous word. It is wither a form of shalom, meaning "peace", or shalem, meaning "wholeness" or "completeness" or "health" or maybe "integrity." So these are the Peace - or Wholeness - Offerings. Or as a recipe, this might be called the Peace Porridge.

Torah then gives ingredients. Three types of offerings that fall into the Peace offering rubric. They are: neder, nedavah, and todah.

Neder means "vow" - we recognize this word from our Yom Kippur evening prayer, Kol Nidre - All our Vows. The second type is nedavah, meaning something like "willingness" or "generosity", from the same root as the word nadiv in the chant we sang tonight. And the third, and trickiest type is todah, meaning gratitude.

These are three main ingredients for making peace, or for achieving personal or even global healing or integration. Not the only ingredients. But perhaps the ones that require a reminder.

Let's start with neder: vow. What is a vow? I think a vow has two elements. One is the desire to change some circumstance in the world ("I'll never be hungry again!"). The other element is accountability to a powerful witness ("As God is my witness, I'll never be hungry again."). If there was no circumstance you wanted changed, there would be no reason to make a vow. And by making a vow instead of merely intending to do something, you are accepting responsibility for the change actually taking place. So intead of "vow", let's call this element something more in our vocabulary, like "commitment". So one piece of making peace in the world involves identifying that peace would be a desirable change, and committing to it. Becoming personally responsible for it. You cannot be like Avigdor Lieberman, Israel's new Defense Minister, who said yesterday that the last year of peace negotiations have no relevance because they were not adopted by Knesset. You have to do the opposite of Lieberman. Even though the efforts haven't been ratified, nonetheless we are committed. Commitment is different than and precedes method. That is the element of neder that builds peace. Your personal healing also requires your commitment even if you don't yet know the means.

The second ingredient of Peace Porridge is nedavah: I will translate this as generosity. Not generosity as a character trait, but generosity as a practice. If you want peace - in a personal relationship or on a global scale, you must be willing to give, to give more than you wanted to give. To surrender sometimes - not in the military sense, but to let go of your need not to budge. Nedavah says "act generously, give more than you thought you would." And in your personal healing, try being generous toward, instead of angry at, what stands in your way, even (and especially) if what stands in your way is you.

So ingredient #1 is neder, commitment. Ingredient #2 is nedavah, generosity. And finally, the most difficult ingredient, of unreliable consistency and highly perishable - is todah: gratitude. Why might gratitude be an essential ingredient in creating peace?

Gratitude is a kind of breath or breeze that clears the mist from your eyes and lets you look at things differently. When we're in conflict with others - friends, lovers, bosses or nations - and in general in much of how we live our lives, we are very aware of what we don't have. We act so often out of a place of need. "If only I had..." "I'm going to get..." "I need a better house, job, lover." "I need more affection from you." "I need appreciation." "I need your resources, your power, your land." "I need more respect."

Gratitude doesn't change any of the facts. But it fundamentally changes how we look at those facts and the value we assign to them. I, for instance, have a lot. We all do. And I know that all of what I have is an accident of birth, and a gift of privilege, and the consequence of a series of coincidences too numerous to count. I don't deserve what I have, and if I earned it, I did so only in the most superficial of ways. So when I feel gratitude I feel how precious and how precarious all of what I have is. My focus moves from "need" to "have"; from desire to dayenu - it is enough. Or if it's not enough, it's still a lot. Or, in Jewish terms, things could always be worse.

So how does gratitude make peace? If you approach peace from a place that isn't just unmitigated need, then there is a chance that an option will arise that might actually satisfy you. Or satisfy you well enough. Gratitude paves the way for compromise.

Interestingly, in the parashah, the gratitude offering is handled differently from the other two kinds of Peace Offerings. There is special fuss involved - including an elaborate bread hors d'oeuvre that must be prepared, with a recipe rivaling anything in Martha Stewart. And then the entire gratitude offering must be eaten - by the priests together with the person offering gratitude - that night. You can eat the neder offering and the nedavah offering the next day and even the next. But not todah. Not gratitude.

Why is this? In Torah it's never explained. But I think gratitude is different than commitment and generosity. You can make a commitment and can carry it out even if your heart isn't always in it. If you decide to act generously, you can do so, even if it's not making you happy at that moment when you have to act. (We all know that it sometimes feels different to make your pledge to tzedakah than it does to actually write the check a couple weeks later.) Commitment and generosity are like brisket. Frankly, the leftovers serve just as well.

But while commitment and generosity focus on our actions. gratitude is an emotion and comes from the heart. If it is indeed gratitude, and not pretend, then it must be sincere in the moment in which it is experienced or expressed. Gratitude is a dish that must be served hot. It is not brisket. It is a souffle. When you feel gratitude you must down it and digest it right then, because tomorrow it might be gone.

So healing the world, healing our relationships, healing ourselves. Like all healing, it's better with soup. And as the parashah teaches us, Peace Porridge needs these ingredients, so offer them up! Commitment, generosity, and gratitude. The quantities are up to you. The results? Not guaranteed. But oh, it would taste so good, how can you not try?

Bon appetit.