Letter and Spirit

For the week ending 4 January 2020 / 7 Tevet 5780

Parshat Vayigash

by Rabbi Yosef Hershman
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Family Offering

The unfolding drama climaxes in Yosef’s revelation to his brothers, and climaxes again when they return to Canaan to share this longed-for news to an incredulous Yaakov. His heart stood still in a disbelief that melted into unspeakable joy. His spirit lived once more.

Yaakov chooses to mark the occasion with a special offering of thanksgiving. But it was a different sort of offering. Until now, all offerings in the Torah — by Noach and his descendants, by Avraham and Yitzchak — have been olot, “burnt offerings,” where the animal is consumed entirely by the altar’s fire.

For the first time, Yaakov offers zevachim, also known as shelamim, literally “peace offerings.” This offering is brought freely to G-d, often as an expression of thanksgiving. In contrast to one offering an olah, the person offering a shelamim, and his family, partake in the meat of the animal, and in the abundant bread that accompanies the shelamim. Whereas olah expresses complete personal devotion to G-d, the zevach is a family meal. It consecrates the family’s home and table as a temple and altar, and celebrates G-d’s presence in the midst of a faithful family.

While non-Jews are invited to bring olah offerings to the Temple, the shelamim is a distinctively Jewish offering. The idea of being absorbed by G-d, and devoting oneself completely to Him is one that occupies non-Jewish minds as well. But the idea that everyday life can be imbued with the spirit of G-d is unique to Judaism. Spirituality is not only in the realm of the Temple and the altar; it exists at the dinner table and in the family rooms. Our physical and private lives, when lived in faithful commitment, become a dwelling place for G-d. If in the olah one expresses the notion of going to G-d, then the shelamim expresses the notion of G-d coming to us.

For the first time, Yaakov experiences the joy of a complete family life. The fissures have been repaired, and he is about to be reunited with his long-lost son. With this feeling, he brings this “family offering” to G-d. Notably, he brings this offering to “the G-d of his father Yitzchak.” In his humility, Yaakov does not celebrate the faithfulness of his harmonious family, but attributes these achievements to the merit of his father. With this awareness, his newly-complete family is prepared to begin their journey into nationhood.

  • Source: Commentary, Genesis 46:1

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