The book of Vayikra/Leviticus, which we begin reading this week, is almost exclusively devoted to details of the sacrificial rituals of ancient Israel. Many commentators have pointed out that there is, in fact, no one Hebrew word for “sacrifice” per se. The Torah presents many different words (e.g. olah, zevach, minchah) for various types of sacrificial offerings that function in different ways depending upon their specific purpose.
The most generic word for sacrifice is “korban,” which comes from the Hebrew root meaning “close.” The clear implication is that sacrifice was the spiritual means by which the ancient Israelites were able to feel close to God’s presence.
This, then, is the central focus of Vayikra: the ways in which sacrifice can help us effect a sense of closeness with the Divine. In this way, Vayikra makes it abundantly clear that spirituality and sacrifice are irrevocably intertwined. Only by giving up something precious and valuable could the Israelites find communion with God. To be sure, animal offerings represented a significant personal sacrifice for a community whose wealth was fundamentally tied up with their flocks and herds. Vayikra emphasizes repeatedly that only the best animals – “without blemish” – were worthy of sacrifice upon the altar. These offerings were, without question, truly sacrificial gifts.
Ever since the destruction of the Temple and the end of the formal sacrificial system, the concept of sacrifice has presented a challenge for Jewish tradition. Though the Jewish sages famously taught that prayer effectively became the functional equivalent of animal sacrifice for Jews, it is worth asking if the sacramental aspect of true sacrifice has somehow become lost to us. Indeed, what significance does korban hold for a contemporary Jewish nation that lives far, far away from the milieu we read about in Leviticus?
As contemporary Americans, we might ask ourselves a similar question: is sacrifice even an operative concept in our civic culture any more? This is a particularly critical question for a country engaged in a war that currently entering its fifth year. Witness this exchange during a recent interview between PBS’s Jim Lehrer and President Bush:
Lehrer: “Let me ask you a bottom-line question, Mr. President. If it is as important as you’ve just said – and you’ve said it many times – as all of this is, particularly the struggle in Iraq, if it’s that important to all of us and to the future of our country, if not the world, why have you not, as president of the United States, asked more Americans and more American interests to sacrifice something? The people who are now sacrificing are, you know, the volunteer military – the Army and the U.S. Marines and their families. They’re the only people who are actually sacrificing anything at this point.”
President Bush: “Well, you know, I think a lot of people are in this fight. I mean, they sacrifice peace of mind when they see the terrible images of violence on TV every night. I mean, we’ve got a fantastic economy here in the United States, but yet, when you think about the psychology of the country, it is somewhat down because of this war.”
Beyond the war in Iraq, we Americans would do well to ask ourselves further: are we ready to sacrifice to pay higher taxes to ensure the welfare of the most vulnerable members of our society? Are we ready to make the financial sacrifices necessary to ensure universal health care in our country? Are we ready to sacrifice our increasing energy consumption to help ensure the survival of our planet?
Are we really, truly ready to open an authentic national conversation about the true meaning of collective sacrifice?