A little sacrifice every day.
Yom Kippur 5774
Temple Beth Jacob of Newburgh
Rabbi Larry Freedman
I usually decide what to speak about for High Holidays based on things that have intrigued me during the year. I figure if I find it interesting, perhaps you’ll find it interesting. That’s good for me and a roll of the dice for you. No more so than this year than after reading Prof. Jonathan Klawan’s book, “Purity, Sacrifice and the Temple.” Prof. Klawans has helped me understand better what motivated our ancestors to engage in sacrifice and, to my surprise, how their motivation has something to teach us modern folk. I know. I was surprised, too.
But first, a quick history lesson.
After the second Temple was destroyed in 70 CE, there was no place to offer sacrifices and the whole system was thrown in chaos. Fortunately, there already were small buildings around the Land of Israel where Jews gathered to study or socialize and they, in short order, turned into places where the people started to use prayer to connect with God. Jews started praying three times a day to mimic the sacrifices offered three times a day. The prayers replaced the sacrifices. And it worked. Where Jews once drew God down to Earth with offerings of grains or animals, now they drew God close through prayers.
Over time, our prayers grew longer and longer as generations added to the prayer book including prayers about the sacrificial system. The Reform Movement from its inception wanted nothing to do with looking backward and set to work editing. If you ever wonder why our prayers are shorter than the average Orthodox congregation it’s because we’ve removed the lengthy prayers that serve as a remembrance of the sacrificial system. Also because we made some things shorter but mostly it’s because we removed prayers we no longer believed in and saying them just to say them wasn’t working for us.
However, Prof. Klawans has given me some insight and even better, a metaphor for how sacrifice can still be meaningful for us today. We won’t be offering up goats next week but on this Yom Kippur, as we try to figure out how to be even better people, there may be something in how he looks at how they looked at their sacrifices.
To start we need to understand ritual defilement. There were things that happened in the daily course of living that would, in the ancient days, make you ritually unfit. Various bodily fluids would make you unfit, some skin diseases, contact with a dead body which isn’t as odd as it may seem when you remember we didn’t have funeral homes to take care of our loved ones. Basically a bunch of things that you couldn’t avoid might make you ritually defiled. And if that wasn’t bad enough, you could even spread the defilement if you mingled with others. But all was not lost. It wasn’t the end of the world. There was a clear solution. Offer a sacrifice, wash your clothes, and stay outside of the camp until nightfall. These and some other things were the ritual cure. After the sacrifice, after you washed up, after a little time away, you were welcomed back among the community. Ritual defilement was easy to overcome. And, by offering these sacrifices you created a sense of holiness and drew the Divine presence down nearer to all. Your actions helped keep holiness in the land.
On the other hand, there were three things far more serious than the usual ritual defilements. These were moral defilements. Idolatry, sexual transgressions and bloodshed. These were very serious things. These were not things that a little washing and time could solve. These were things that polluted the land itself. The very land upon which the whole tribe walked would be unfit, that’s how awful these moral failures were. Do any of these three things and you ruin it for everyone. Do these things and you chase away the Divine presence. The very sanctuary where you would draw close to God would be threatened. God would not stay in a place with such immorality, with such moral pollution.
So, to review: do your daily sacrifices and things will work out just fine. Engage in immorality and you pollute the land. Most scholars have assumed life during Temple days as a never ending game of catch up. People did those terrible things. Those three things spiritually polluted the land. They drove away the Divine. Then the people in response offered their daily sacrifices as a way of trying to get themselves and the land ritually fit again and entice the Divine to come back down from Heaven once again. All those sacrifices were usually seen as an attempt to convince God that good people were doing the right thing so that God will remove the stain of permanent pollution and stay in the Temple.
But Prof. Klawans sees it the other way. He is more optimistic. He sees the world as basically good where Jews bring in their daily offerings, their sacrifices to draw them to God and bring the Divine presence to the Temple and the Land of Israel. And life is good. Good Jews offering nice, mundane sacrifices and all is well. And then someone comes along and messes it up. Someone comes along and does something horrible that upturns the whole thing and the goodness from those small sacrifices, the efforts of so many people are threatened, imperiled because of the grave sins of just a few, those idolaters, sexual transgressors, murderers.
Put in another way, people make sacrifices to keep things going and then some idiot comes and messes it up. And then I understood how their sacrifices were very similar to our sacrifices.
Isn’t that the way it is in our families, in school, at work? Wherever we gather with others, we do our part to keep things going smoothly. We can’t have whatever we want at work. We can’t get whatever we want with our families or at school. We have to cooperate with others. We have to give in a little bit. We have to reach out to others a little bit. We have to make small, wait for it, sacrifices every day. We give in a little bit here and there. We sacrifice a little bit here and there for the sake of creating a smooth running society. We sacrifice a little bit to have peace in the home. We give something to keep things drama free at school. We compromise with workmates. And when we do that we create a civil society or loving family or enjoyable work place. Dare I say we bring shalom to those places? When everyone sacrifices a little, we work well together. We build trust and we start operating smoothly and effectively and successfully. People in families take care of each other, work places become pleasant and productive, school becomes a place to grow and learn as students and teachers support each other. There is holiness in these places. Real live holiness is drawn down to these places when everyone gives a little to get along.
And then somebody comes in and behaves in such an egregious manner that the whole system is messed up. All those sacrifices, all those little sacrifices people made for a greater good over weeks, months, years, have gone to waste because of the immoral behavior of a buffoon and it is so frustrating. Families don’t trust, work is dreaded, school is filled with suspicion.
And then we have to go back and start over. We have to try to rebuild what we had with small sacrifices once again. We have to fight to reclaim the shalom that was in our homes and workplaces and schools. We have to struggle to bring the holiness back into our lives. We have to engage not in the grand gesture of a once a year sacrifice but the daily, weekly offerings to bring civility back. That’s what it takes to overcome the fool who blunders in.
Can you see that fool? Can you imagine that person who upsets so much careful planning?
Usually I like the Hebrew word korban for our ancient offerings with its meaning of near or close. When we offer a korban we draw near to God or perhaps we draw God near to us. If God is the source of ethics and justice and righteousness, then indeed we do want to bring God near to us. But sometimes the word sacrifice might be better. Klawans reminds us that indeed we do sacrifice. For the sake of a moral society, for the sake of civil relations, for the sake of family harmony we do sacrifice a little. We give up a little status, a little money, perhaps, a little freedom. Sometimes we give up the acknowledgement we want. We make these little sacrifices for a greater good. And it is a greater good when we all sacrifice just a little. Just think of that person who wants all the status, all the money, demands complete freedom and shares no acknowledgment or credit. Think of what that person does and how he or she pollutes your family, your workplace, your school.
Don’t be that person. That’s for sure. You don’t want to be that person. On this Yom Kippur, use the day to search your soul. Use the drama of the day, this great annual moment to repair the damage you have done if you’ve been that guy, even a little bit. By all means, do that. That is what the day is for. But then, tomorrow, the day after Yom Kippur, return to the daily sacrifices, the smaller, quieter, ordinary, routine sacrifices we make to cultivate a better society. Give a little money, share a little credit, offer a little praise to others, so others have a chance. Make those little sacrifices, every day, to create a decent society. Every day sacrifice just a little. And watch out for that fool who ruins it all. Try to keep that fool far away. But if one of those guys does get in and pollutes your group, with a little time and good work, you can rebuild a better community.