November 16, 2018

Willingness to Sacrifice

Animal sacrifices are rather messy, and most of us would have a hard time imagining ourselves offering them up upon a Temple altar.

I’m probably not going too far
out on a limb in suggesting that when we come to shul each year to begin the book of Vayikra, we feel quietly relieved that the “lecture” won’t be followed by a “lab.”

We’re confident that the chances of our rabbi exhorting us to come next Shabbat with two year-old unblemished lambs for a pleasing fire-offering before the Lord are extremely small. (Rabbi Abraham Kook, chief rabbi of pre-state Palestine, actually opined that all of the offerings in the Third Temple will be vegetarian.)

Although strangely enough, I would argue that the cost of distancing ourselves emotionally from the world of sacrifices has been high, and that the historical lapsing of the practice has had a negative impact on the state of our contemporary religious practice.

Sacrifices were never actually about sacrifice. Sacrifices were about the willingness to sacrifice.

God did not command our ancestors to offer sacrifices because He needed or wanted them. “For what do I need your numerous offerings, saith the Lord?”
(Isaiah 1:11).

Rather, God did so in order to instill and reinforce within us an essential feature of the entirety of religious living, namely the willingness to endure personal sacrifice in the pursuit of doing that which is holy and that which is good.

It’s impossible to compare the power and potential of religious commitment that comes with the willingness to sacrifice with those of a commitment that are not thus accompanied. If I am committed, for example, to feed the hungry of my city, and I am prepared to expose myself to the cold, the rain and other unpleasant circumstances in order to do it, I will impact much more powerfully than if I am unprepared to do so.

Yet, despite the obviousness of this observation, we very often fail to apply its implications to the wide swath of our religious commitments. Consider these three examples:

A holy ethic of speech

We are each committed to the Torah’s vision of holy and ethical speech. We recognize the damage we can inflict by publicly humiliating others (the rabbis compare it to murder), the pain we can inflict through cruel or insensitive use of words (the Torah employs the term “oppression” to describe speaking in this way) and the irremediable harm we can cause by speaking ill of others (even when what we have said is true).

But how much personal sacrifice are we willing to endure to uphold this commitment? In certain situations, our commitment will require us to sacrifice personal popularity, reputation, even personal pride. The holiness of verbal discretion is not always appreciated in all social or professional circumstances. To what extent is the willingness to sacrifice part of our commitment to ethical speech?

Identifying with the grand narrative of the Jewish people

Broken down to its most basic formulation, to have a Jewish identity is to commit to consciously live one’s life as a chapter in the ongoing narrative of Jewish history. We each can and do define this in our own way, but the objective is a common one. The premise of such a life, of course, is being anchored in the chapters of the narrative that have already been written.

The instrument through which we achieve that anchoring is the observance of our holidays. Sure, we love and cherish our holidays. But we often are not prepared to make the sacrifices necessary if we are to truly, deeply “become one” with the chapters of our history that they embody.

We often hesitate when it comes to making dietary sacrifices (Tisha B’Av, Passover), sacrifices in our convenience (Sukkot), professional/financial sacrifices (Shabbat). But with no pain, there’s no gain. And our ability to firmly establish our place in our people’s ongoing story is diluted.

Seeing the world through God’s eyes

We are each aware of our own limitations. Our best and most sincere efforts are vulnerable to the intrusions of our egos and to the variety of ulterior motives that are endemic to the human condition. The best antidote we have is daily prayer — when we hold up our deeds and thoughts before God, and we see them as God does.

Any impurities in our motives or insincerities in our intentions are revealed, and we emerge from prayer with the blessed ability to fine-tune our course. Prayer, too, requires sacrifice however; sacrifice of the most elusive of all quantities nowadays –that of time. Prayer simply takes time.

The details of Parshat Vayikra indeed come to us from an era long ago. But the underlying message, the need to be willing to make sacrifices in order to realize our deepest commitments, is timeless. The reward for this willingness is nothing less than the unlocking of all the hidden potential that resides within our most profound and cherished ideals.

Yosef Kanefsky is the rabbi of B’nai David-Judea Congregation, a Modern Orthodox congregation in the Pico-Robertson neighborhood.