Years ago, when I was struggling with some intense personal matters, an out-of-town therapist offered me some advice that still strikes me as terribly misguided. I told him that I had a difficult decision to make and all of my options seemed to involve deep compromises, in which I would have to give up something of significant importance to me. He responded: “Do not make serious sacrifices. They only leave you feeling resentful.”
This week’s Torah portion, Vayikra, which opens the book of Leviticus, speaks far more positively about sacrifice. It focuses on the offerings that our ancestors brought to the priests: sheep and goats and bulls and birds, and grain and libation sacrifices. On a literal level, these things are very foreign to most of us. The gory details of Leviticus—innards burned and blood dashed on the altar—are worlds removed from our reality. Yet Leviticus stands at the center of the Torah; it was, traditionally, the first thing that children learned in their Jewish education.
Why? Consider the Hebrew word for sacrifices: korbanot. It comes from the verb “l’karev” which means “to bring near.” The sacrifices were prescribed for the Israelites as a means of drawing close to God and to our loved ones. We no longer offer up animals. But we, too, enter into and sustain relationships by learning to make sacrifices for one another. The ability and willingness to make such sacrifices shows that we are prepared to think beyond our own needs—to truly love another.
Rabbi Amy Scheinerman ponders whether human love requires sacrifice. She answers: “I think it does. To reach another’s soul, we have to open ours. We bring our olah (burnt offering) to the altar. Our olah takes the form of entrusting this person with something that makes us feel vulnerable, something deeply personal and meaningful, and knowing that the outcome of that trust is that we are going to be changed. From the other side, when someone reaches out to us to create such an opening and we want to accept their olah, we must suspend judgment, which is to say, sacrifice the stereotypes and pre-conceived notions we harbor to make ourselves feel safe, and be open. From this side, as well, we will be changed.”
My therapist-advisor saw sacrifice as nothing more than a loss that would generate ongoing resentment. If he is right, love is impossible and doomed. Thankfully, I do not believe that he is right. I much prefer the advice of Rabbi Lawrence Kushner, who teaches that when it comes to love, and anything that really matters deeply: “If I hoard it, I lose it. If I give it away, it comes back to me.”
Sacrifice enables nearness—korbanot. And nearness is what makes relationship possible.