There is an ancient concept that in our own day has fallen into disrepute. It is called sacrifice.
We first read of this idea in the opening chapters of Leviticus. This week’s portion begins the lengthy book detailing these elaborate rituals. In ancient times one did not pray as we do today. One did not offer words. Instead one offered animals, or grains.
It was always the choicest of the flock that was chosen for a sacrifice. It had to be the most prized that was offered. The Torah demands that the animal be without blemish. That requirement was part of the power of sacrifice. One could not casually peruse the flock. One had to carefully examine the animals to choose the one perfect, unblemished animal.
Once the choice was made it was brought to the priest, who would slaughter the animal and sprinkle its blood on the altar. Imagine this. Your most valuable animal is slaughtered before your eyes. Moreover you rejoiced in this act. You took great pride and pleasure in this sacrifice. To be sure many ancient cultures believed that sacrifices were foods for the gods, appeasing them and staying their anger. There are hints of this even in our own Torah. As the slaughtered animal is turned to smoke on the altar, the Torah comments that it was a pleasing odor to the Lord.
All of this is foreign. I want nothing of these rituals. I want little of killing animals on an altar. Yet I long for the ancients’ comfort with sacrifice. We live in a society where we rarely if ever sacrifice for others. Our children especially do not know the meaning of sacrifice. Have we ever asked them to give up something they prize for the sake of another? We have struggled, and continue to struggle, so that they might not know want, that they lack nothing. But at what cost? Do they truly know the meaning of giving to others? Have we as well ever given up something we cherish for another? Can we discover the of meaning we seek absent of sacrifice?
At both of the last two funerals I attended there were military honor guards. Both funerals were for older men who served during Korea. Unlike prior generations of Jews so few of my generation serve in the military. The coffin was draped in an American flag. Taps was played. The honor guard carefully folded the flag and then presented it to the widow saying, “On behalf of the President of the United States and a grateful nation…” Tears roll down my cheeks every time I hear this. Why? It is because the essence of this ritual is about sacrifice. Here was a man who served our country in the armed services and was therefore willing to sacrifice his life for something greater. The honor guard gives voice to the ancient premise. The willingness to sacrifice gives meaning to our lives.
This is why the generation who fought in World War II and built the industries that made our country into a leading economy is called the greatest generation. It is because they sacrificed so much for others; they sacrificed for this nation. Even those who did not serve in the military were asked to sacrifice, to ration food and gas and to buy war bonds. The ancients were right about sacrifice and its meaning. The willingness to give up what is most precious leads to greatness.
I have said this before and I am certain I will say it again, we have been asked to sacrifice nothing in the ongoing war on terror. To be sure our lives have become filled with inconveniences and nuisances, especially when traveling. But ordinary Americans have not been asked to sacrifice for their country. Even much of the soldiering has been contracted out. A military contractor is a job. It is not the calling to serve something greater that is the defining character of a soldier. We have not been beseeched with the words, “Our brethren serving in the armed forces continue to die defending our nation and so we must drive less, eat less…” Ask me to sacrifice just one thing for the sake of our nation! This past week Specialist Daquane D. Rivers (21 years old) and Second Lieutenant Clovis T. Ray (34 years old) were killed in Afghanistan.
In Hebrew the word for sacrifice is korban. It is related to the word to draw near. The meaning is clear. It was believed that offering a sacrifice enabled the worshipper to draw near to God.
We often complain that we live in a world that is fractured and disconnected. Perhaps it is because of our unwillingness to sacrifice. The essential truth found in this week’s Torah portion is that when we sacrifice we draw near. And when sacrifice is not even part of our lexicon we only draw near to ourselves. Thus we find ourselves far more distant from ourselves, our community, our nation and even our God.
We must speak again the word of sacrifice. Its wisdom is not just for ancient times. It is needed today as well.