hazzan Diana Brewer was ordained through the aleph ordination program. she leads prayer services regularly at the jewish community of amherst, and is on the staff of the davvenen leadership training institute.

Sacrifice. Just what is it, anyway?

I certainly don't purport to have THE ANSWER to the question I've posed above, but it's something I've been pondering and finding some openings to recently. Thought I'd share.

Despite being the word nerd that I am, it had never dawned on me to check on the etymology of the word sacrifice. Boy, was my world blown open when my teacher, Reb Leila Gal-Berner, was good enough to do this in our class the other day as we were in the midst of a wonderful discussion on the topic. Not surprisingly, most of us were coming at it from the angle of giving something up. This seems to be the most common association with the word, and understandably so, all things considered.

However, here's what she brought to our attention: Sacrifice = sacra (holy, sacred) + facere (make, do) Wow! Nowhere does it say anything about giving something up. Our classmate Shir Yaakov Feit then reminded us that the Hebrew word we use to refer to the sacrificial rites is korban, which has its root in drawing near. Other words we have are mincha (gift) and olah (ascend, go up). 

While I can't really get inside the mind of a person living in 12th century BCE, I am aware that the practice of slaughtering and burning animals in a specified place in a specified way was how people went about drawing near to G8d, and drawing G8d near to us. The best I can do is to imagine the visceral experience - the sights, the smells, the fire, the smoke. Fire, smoke, blood - three powerful, dangerous and enigmatic substances/elements. Simultaneously contained in these are the promise of life and the danger of death . Even offerings made with grains and other plant matter certainly hold within them the fragility of life, if somewhat less obviously. Here in this place we could share with the Melech memit um'chayyeh - the Sovereign who brings both death and life - the place where life and death intersect. We could meet at the interface. We could draw closer.

I must also add that I understand clearly why the word sacrifice is practically synonymous with giving something up. I've often thought about the fact that in bringing one bull to the altar (nevermind 7 bulls, and a bunch of rams, etc.), one is effectively putting generations of potential livelihood on the line. An offering of a tenth of one's first fruits of the ground amounts to quite a few meals for the family. If you think of it in those terms, it looks like a lot to give up, to surrender. At which point I come back to a phrase I love, "Every surrender brings us closer to G8d." And we're back to drawing near.

So, we don't do that today. After the destruction of the second Temple in the 1st century CE, our rabbis determined it was time to find a new way to DO HOLY, and now we have a wonderful liturgy. We have a bunch of mitzvot - the Jewish version of mindfulness practice - which we were given in order to be holy, to do holy throughout the day. 

The day after our discussion in class, the thought came to me in my meditation (one of my ways of doing holy each day) that perhaps everything I did in a day could be holiness in action. "What if every word I uttered were a prayer?" I thought. By around 7:15 that morning I realized I had already failed. I didn't feel badly about that - it's not a realistic expectation by any means. It just solidified to me why we have to set aside time intentionally for practices that help us draw nearer to the Source of Life, just as there were specific times for the daily and special korbanot, and later our three set times for prayer. Yes, this requires making choices, the giving of time, and the giving up of some other things in order to make the space for it. There are times when I can do this effortlessly, and times when it feels like an impossible surrender. I'll never get that time back, after all. When will I get my history reading done??? As I like to think our ancestors never regretted bringing their livestock to the interface, so far I have never regretted a choice to set aside time to do holy. Every surrender has, indeed, brought me closer to G8d.

Parashat Va’era: Our Journey Through the Torah Continues

VAYISHLACH: Reflections Before a Family Reunion