Shabbat shalom. Thank you all for honoring us with your presence on this Shabbat morning as Alexa, Steve, and I stand before you after many fruitful months of study with our fearless teacher Rabbi Bair and his faithful deputy, Marilyn Roberts.
The Torah portion that we chanted from this morning is Parashat Tzav, which deals primarily with different aspects of ritual sacrifice. In a Torah portion such as this one, it’s very easy to get lost in the details, because, if you read the whole Torah portion, you can see that there really are a lot of details. The risk of getting lost in details is especially true for me. I was trained as a linguist and that’s what we linguists do: We like to get ourselves lost in details. And, so it’s not surprising that as I was studying this week’s Torah portion, I became quite interested in a single word, the word ‘sacrifice’.
First of all, I wonder if your intuition matches mine, that, when we use the word ‘sacrifice’ in English, it implies losing something on behalf of someone or something else. When we speak of parents making sacrifices for their children, for example, we mean they give up something – time, money, sleep – to benefit their children.
In Hebrew, the word ‘sacrifice’ is korban. Now, for those of you who don’t know much about Hebrew word structure, please indulge me as I offer a very short lesson: In all Hebrew verbs, and in most Hebrew nouns, we can identify what is called a root, which is a three-consonant sequence that connects related words. The root of the word korban ‘sacrifice’ is the Hebrew letters kof-resh-bet, which correspond to the sounds made by the English letters k-r-b. Interestingly, this root is also found in the word karov, which means ‘close’, in the word kruvim, which means ‘relatives’, and in the word l’hitkarev, which means ‘to approach’. These three consonants, I believe, have some important lessons to teach us.
When I think of examples of sacrifice in my life, I think of my mother. When I was 13, my parents separated and my mom moved from New Mexico to Arizona, bringing along my two brothers and me and my grandmother. During our first years in Arizona, my mom’s life could be characterized as consisting of a great deal of sacrifice as she took on various jobs to provide us with food and shelter, while also going to college to provide herself a better future.
Though my mom’s life settled into a more-or-less stable routine after she finished college, she once again had to make sacrifices when my grandmother became ill as a result of complications from diabetes that left her bed-ridden and in need of dialysis three times a week. During that time, my mom gave up essentially all her free time, a lot of sleep, as well as potential career advancement, to take care of the various needs of my grandmother. Two years after my grandmother passed away, just as my mom was settling back into a more-or-less regular routine, my mom was diagnosed with brain cancer, which ultimately left her bed-ridden and which left my brothers and me to now be the ones to make sacrifices – of time, money, and lots and lots of emotional energy – to take care of her during this really challenging time for all of us.
Now, the way that I just related those events, I believe, reflects, the notion of sacrifice that’s basically what we typically think of when we use the word ‘sacrifice’ in English – that of giving something up on someone else’s behalf. However, the Torah and, specifically, the Hebrew language itself challenge us to think of sacrifice in another way. I believe a lesson we can draw from the Hebrew root kof-resh-bet is that the act of sacrifice is not fundamentally about giving something up. It is about approaching the divine. We can see this by the fact that korban ‘sacrifice’ shares a root with l’hitkarev ‘to approach’ and karov ‘close’. My mom’s sacrifice for her mother, therefore, was not fundamentally about my mom losing something, but about her drawing close – to her mother, to her values of family, integrity, and dignity, and to God. In other words, by taking care of my grandmother, my mother was connecting to God.
This idea of creating close relationships as a way of approaching the divine reminds me of the early 20th century Jewish philosopher Martin Buber. Buber wrote a book called I and Thou, and in that book, he discusses how there are two types of relationship dynamics: what he calls an “I-It” relationship and an “I-You” relationship. An “I-It” experience is one of use. For example, a patient uses a doctor to heal from an illness and a doctor uses a patient as a way to earn a living. There’s nothing inherently wrong with an “I-It” relationship, but we probably don’t want our close relationships to consist solely of “I-It” experiences. In contrast, an “I-You” experience describes a relationship of mutuality, one that is built on two people genuinely respecting and understanding one another. When we truly know someone and when we are moved to do something to make their life better, that, is an “I-You” relationship. And, when we achieve such a relationship, as Martin Buber writes, “we are touched by a breath of eternal life.” To Buber, when we approach another human in an “I-You” relationship, that is a way of approaching God. And, that, I believe is how we are called to view the sacrifices we experience for others – not as losing something, but rather as part of a larger endeavor to connect with them. I also believe that this principle offers guidance on what sacrifices are appropriate to make for others. It is those sacrifices that draw us to others that are the ones worth making. Sacrifices that have the effect of distancing us from others or from our values are not consistent with the spirit of the Hebrew root kof-resh-bet, which reminds us of the vital link between sacrifices, closeness to others, and approaching the divine. And, so, as we let the words of this week’s Torah portion inform our experiences of the week to come, may we view the act of building closer relationships to the people we interact with as a way of approaching the divine. Shabbat shalom.