Shabbat Shemini Torah Reading: Exodus 9:1-11:47
In this week's Parashah/Torah portion, we have a front row seat to a long-awaited moment. For weeks of Torah reading, for months of real time, materials have been gathered, utensils have been crafted, vestments have been prepared, an altar has been constructed, purification rituals have been established and followed and now the first sacrifice is to be brought to the altar of the Mishkan, the portable Tabernacle that travels through the wilderness with the wandering Israelite nation.
Early in the parashah we read: "This is what the Lord has commanded that you do, that the Presence of the Lord may appear to you." The "this" is the sacrifice. In Hebrew, the word for sacrifice is "korban," built on a three-letter Hebrew root ק ר ב which means "to draw near." The sacrifices, in their original conception, are meant to draw Israel and God nearer to each other.
From the distance of almost two millennia during which there has been no sacrificial cult in Judaism, we might wonder what we can do to draw God's presence into our lives. Was this awesome power lost when the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans in the year 70?
After the destruction of the Temple, Israelite sacrifice-centric religion was superceded by the rabbinic Judaism we know today: the Judaism of Torah study, acts of lovingkindess, worship, mitzvah/commandment and community. The dynamic of sacrifice in order to bring God closer still works, but the content of our sacrifice has changed.
Those of us who acknowledge even modest achievements in our lives know well that we attained those achievements through sacrifice. We studied instead of played and thereby earned our degrees or vocational certification; we put the needs and preferences of others before our own and are thereby blessed with the mutual support and regard of loving relationships; we set aside the pleasures of foreign travel or five star restaurants in order to invest in our children's education and well-being and thereby equip our children to be independent and productive adults themselves.
In Judaism, a myriad of blessings await us if we are ready to make modest sacrifices to bring God into our lives:
We forgo the delights of pork and shellfish and thereby elevate our table to a place where we see food as a blessing; we invest a signficant portion of our discretionary income to support our synagogue and thereby are nourished by the social, intellectual and spiritual gifts of Jewish community; we set aside a modest amount of time to study our tradition and thereby gain entry to an infinitely engaging and meaningful legacy of values, faith and insight.
Small, accessible sacrificial moments like these bring God's presence into our lives, just as our parashah promised.
All this should get us to a surprising place: the word "sacrifice" is now transformed for us. Instead of avoiding sacrifice as an unwanted burden, we should be on the lookout for opportunities to sacrifice . . . for the blessings that sacrifice can bring are infinitely nourishing and engaging.
Rabbi Amy Levin
has been Torat Yisrael's rabbi since the summer of 2004 and serves as President of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Rhode Island.