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Vayikra Sermon

There are many sacrifices detailed in this week’s Torah portion.   There is the burnt offering, everyday sacrifice, the meal offering, sin offering and guilt offering.  The ancient system was built on sacrifices not on prayer.  The ancient Israelites believed that the world was sustained by this system.  If it was done wrong, if there was a miscue, a wrong sprinkle here or there, the whole world might collapse.  In traditional circles these sacrifices are still seen as the ideal.  We just can’t do them anymore because the Temple was destroyed.  When the messiah comes he will rebuild the Temple and re-establish this sacrificial cult.

I have no desire for a return to this system.  Likewise the Reform movement changed these traditional prayers that hoped for this rebuilding.  The question still remains: why was this seen as the ideal?  The first answer is because religions in general and Judaism in particular see the past as the ideal.  What we did yesterday is better than today; what was said long ago is better than what is said today.  The closer you get to Sinai the more wise are the words.  There is an idealization of the past.  My Reform perspective however is that sometimes the past also holds us captive.  Sometimes we must change.  Sometimes we must be influenced by the past but not beholden to it.  Nowhere does this seem more true than when reading the details of these sacrifices.

Why would I want to slaughter an animal and sprinkle its blood on the altar?  Of course it would be really awesome if I sinned and I could then just bring a goat and give it to the priest and he could slaughter it and I would be forgiven.  That would be great of course if I had any goats.  But it would be terrible if I did not do the really hard work of correcting my failings.

This of course points to the meaning of sacrifice.  The sacrifice was all about offering something that is really precious.  You don’t offer your scrawny, unhealthy, runt of the herd.  You have to offer the unblemished, best of the flock.  You had to search and search for the best.  That was part of the power of the sacrifice.  Searching for the best; choosing the unblemished, perfect animal must have been an enormously powerful undertaking.

With the exception of soldiers we rarely if ever do this in our own lives.  We offer little to others, to our community, to our country.  When have we ever taken something that is most precious and given it to another?  This week I have been thinking that as much as dislike all of the blood and guts of the sacrifices maybe we would be better served to rediscover their deeper meaning.  We elevate our own lives, we make our lives more holy by giving up, by relinquishing control, by sacrificing for others, all in the name of the greater good.  That is what the ancient Israelites understood.

It is for example my belief that democracies cannot wage wars, especially long wars, if only soldiers are asked to sacrifice.  If the general population is not asked to sacrifice so that the nation will succeed the wars become unsustainable.  There are of course a lot of problems with the recently ended war in Iraq, or at least our involvement in it, and the soon to be ending war in Afghanistan.  But one of the greatest problems is that everyone was not asked to sacrifice.  There is a disconnect between those who fight and those of us who continue on with our merry lives.  If all are not asked to sacrifice then these wars become unsustainable.  You might say, they should never have been waged.  But that is not my point.

My contention here is only about sacrifice.  We succeeded in WWII not because of D-Day or the few soldiers who withstood the Battle of the Bulge or ran up the hills on Iowa Jima but because the entire country fought that war and sacrificed so that we might succeed.  If we cannot summon everyone to sacrifice, if we refuse to ask everyone to participate even in the smallest of ways, then we will fail.  You can send in the Navy Seals for this skirmish or that but you cannot sustain a war without everyone sacrificing.  Until all are asked to sacrifice in the current struggle we will fail.

That is my contention.  That is part of the lesson of this week’s portion.  A nation, a country is built on sacrifice.  It is the same with a community.  The group is greater when individuals sacrifice for the larger good.  It is the same with our individual lives.

In order to achieve greatness you have to sacrifice.  You want to earn more, you want to achieve more, then work harder, then sacrifice.  It is a traditional formula; but it works.  There is no lottery ticket for an easy way to success.  To be really honest it does not even work all the time.  Sometimes you might work really hard and sacrifice a lot and still not have great success.  But you will still achieve a measure of meaning.  That can be my only contention.

Sacrifice is about giving something up for the sake of something potentially greater.  There is no guarantee about the potential for greatness.  The key is that it involves giving up.  And that is something we are unwilling to do in our current society.

There are two possible examples of modern sacrifice.  We can sacrifice money when giving tzedakah.  In giving money to others I could be giving up a piece of my retirement.  But in order for it be a sacrifice I have to be losing something.  I might have less to spend on myself, my family, my future in order to give to others.  It is only sacrifice if I actually lose something that I also value.

I could as well sacrifice my time.  How many times do we sacrifice time with family, friends for the sake of a stranger?  You might say that family and friends are more important.  And that is true.  But in order for it to fulfill the definition of sacrifice I must give up something I love for the sake of something else.  My time with my family, with my friends, is most precious.  Giving up my time with them is then a real sacrifice.
There are times when we must offer this on the altar.  And these are our modern sacrifices.  Even strangers are to be loved says the Torah.  To live by that command I must sacrifice what I hold most precious.  I can think of nothing we value more than our time with family.  This is what we might offer.  This is pushed aside so that we might love the stranger.

Another name for sacrifice in Hebrew is olah.  It is the term for the everyday sacrifice, usually translated as burnt offering because the entire offering is burned up on the altar.  It is because it is all turned to smoke and the smoke ascends to heaven that it is called this.  Olah means to go up.

This gives another hint at the ancient meaning of the sacrificial rituals.  In order to raise our lives to lives of meaning we must add the notion of sacrifice.  In order to elevate our lives, we must give to others.  Not only what they need but also some of what is most precious to us.  Whether it be time or money we must sacrifice these on our modern altars.

The ancients had it wrong when it came to the animals and the blood.  But they had it right when they suggested that a meaningful life begins with sacrifice.  May we find the strength to sacrifice, to give to others, if only a portion of what is most precious to us.  Only in this manner we will discover the meaning we seek.