The Eternal Significance of Sacrifice

Our expectation is that we can get whatever we want, whenever we want, and that we shouldn’t need to expend much energy to get it. In such a world, what does it mean to “sacrifice”?

LEVITICUS 1:1-5:26
We live in an age where we can get almost everything we need instantaneously. The world is literally at our fingertips — and increasingly, we don’t even need to use our fingertips — we can just “Ask Google” or call out, “Hey Siri.”
If we want to know any fact, we simply Google it. If we need a new pair of shoes, we can have Amazon deliver it — often on the same day. Long gone are the days of a cliffhanger TV show — Netflix will automatically start the next episode as the previous one ends. Pretty soon, we won’t even need to wait for a valet to bring us a car — we will simply press a button on our phone to call our self-driving car to come to us.
Our expectation is that we can get whatever we want, whenever we want, and that we shouldn’t need to expend much energy to get it. In such a world, what does it mean to “sacrifice”?
The specifics of sacrifice have changed over the years. In biblical times — as we read in this week’s parasha, Vayikra — sacrifice meant giving of the best of what you had to be offered to God through the Priests in the mishkan (tabernacle) or, in later years, in the Beit HaMikdash (Holy Temple). In times of war, sacrifice refers to the death of young men and women who die in battle fighting to protect their country. For members of the “Greatest Generation,” sacrifice meant giving up one’s own comfort to ensure one’s children would be better off than they had been. For John F. Kennedy, it was, “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.”
But what are we asked to sacrifice in today’s world? What are we willing to give up? And, equally important, why should we willingly give up something that is ours if we don’t need to do so?
We can learn a great deal on this matter from a debate among two of our classical biblical commentators. Maimonides looks upon the sacrifices almost as if they were a necessary evil — a concession to humanity’s need to have a physical way to connect to God. If we were more highly developed spiritually, we would not need to offer them.
On the other hand, Nachmanides argues that the Torah repeatedly describes the sacrifices as having a reyach nichoach (a pleasant smell). He understands that this indicates that the act of sacrifice has an intrinsically positive value.
Their debate comes down to this essential question: Is the act of sacrifice something that is necessary or something that is desirable? If it is merely necessary, there is no reason why anyone should unnecessarily sacrifice of themselves. If this is true, perhaps we should celebrate that many people today are no longer asked to make sacrifices. But if, as Nachmanides suggests, the act of sacrificing has some greater benefit, then we must understand what that is and how to apply it today.
One way to understand Nachmanides’ point of view is by looking at the Hebrew word for sacrifice, korban — “to bring close.” The commentator Akeidat Yitzchak notes, “All the sacrifices mentioned in the Torah (other than those connected with atonement) express the desire of the donor to achieve a closeness with God.” Somehow, giving God your first fruits, unblemished animals and the other proscribed sacrifices, helps create a deeper connection between the giver and God. The positive value of the act of sacrifice is that it brings us closer.
The reality is that this concept is equally true today. When we give of ourselves, whether it is of our time or our resources, we know that it brings us closer to the recipients. When we volunteer for an organization or our synagogue, we deepen our sense of belonging. When we visit someone who is homebound or we help rebuild a house, we deepen our sense of connection. When we give money to a particular cause, we deepen our sense of investment in the project. And, perhaps most importantly, when we carve out space in our busy schedules to spend quality and focused time with our loved ones, we deepen our relationships.
Perhaps it is possible to harmonize the viewpoints of Maimonides and Nachmanides. When he taught that the sacrifices were a necessary evil, Maimonides was talking about the specific form of sacrifice that was enacted in the Torah. On the other hand, when Nachmanides was teaching about the intrinsically positive value of the sacrifices, he was referring to the concept of giving of oneself.
I believe that this harmonization is the key to Jewish history and survival. We have always been able to maintain and perpetuate the teachings of the Torah, even if we must adapt the modes by which we enact those lessons. As technology continues to advance at speeds that are difficult for us to fathom, this lesson from Vayikra has never been more important.
Rabbi Marc Israel is Associate Rabbi at Temple Beth Hillel-Beth El. The Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia is proud to provide the Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent.


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