Wednesday, April 01, 2009

The Power of Sacrifice

Each year, when the weekly Torah reading approaches the Book of Leviticus (Vayikra), I struggle with Vayikra’s focus on animal sacrifice. Vayikra seems foreign to contemporary sensibilities. We buy our meat in groceries and shoes in boutiques, never witnessing the actual slaughter of the animals we consume, and as a consequence, the sight of any animal blood makes us queasy. The thought that this gory act is to be done in a sacred place with sacred clergy and sacred goals seems too peculiar a ritual to inspire our 21st century hearts. Many who are uncertain about their understanding of Vayikra take solace in Maimonides’ fascinating (and controversial) remarks considering animal sacrifice to be a less than perfect form of worship, allowed only as a concession to the cultural norms of the biblical period. If sacrifices were somewhat deprecated by Maimonides, we think, it’s not so bad if we can’t understand sacrifices either.

But contemporary discomfort with Vayikra goes beyond PETA-style concerns; there’s something deeper at play here. The Biblical ideal of sacrifice demands absolute dedication, with the animal standing as a proxy for our very selves; each sacrifice is a miniature replay of the grand drama of the akeidah, (the binding of Isaac), with the owner playing Isaac’s role. And this type of selfless devotion is foreign to a zeitgeist built around personal identity.

Identity is critical to contemporary man. Our designer made possessions are intended to reflect our personal style, and we focus on building self esteem and self confidence. In marketing, one must work diligently on a “personal brand”, and develop a unique persona. And intertwined with our deep self absorption is a culture of materialism that is bonus built, consumption driven, and consumer oriented. This is not a culture that is sacrifice friendly.

However, sacrifice is an idea whose time has come. The outrage over AIG executive bonuses and auto executive private jets reflect a deep seated anger at the destructive sense of entitlement that has pervaded the corporate world. There is a growing realization that the global economic crisis was not just a failure of the financial system, but also a failure of character, a crisis brought on by the arrogance and greed of traders and bankers. Humility and selflessness, the core virtues of sacrifice, is the very stuff our culture is so desperately lacking.

The Midrash says that the lesson of sacrifice is that there is nothing as perfect for the service of God as the humble, broken heart. A humble soul, empty of pretense, has remarkable spiritual powers. Its vision of the world is not clouded by ego, and its sense of generosity isn’t smothered by greed. Seen this way, sacrifice is not about destruction; on the contrary, sacrifice allows us to release the power of a humble heart.

While the past year has produced more than its share of villains, from Shearson Lehman Brothers to Bernie Madoff, there are quiet heroes as well. One of them, Chesley Sullenberger, successfully piloted US Air flight 1549 into the Hudson River after both of the airplanes engines were disabled, saving the lives of everyone on board. Beyond Sullenberger’s flying skills was a deep-seated sense of dedication. He didn’t leave the sinking plane until he had walked the entire cabin twice to verify that there was no one else was on board, and insisted that he be the last one to leave the life raft he was in.

Sullenberger’s heroism reminds us of forgotten virtues. As we observe how greed and grift have ravaged our economy, perhaps it’s time to give respect to those who live lives of dedication and devotion; perhaps it’s time to remember those old fashioned virtues of humility and generosity.

Perhaps it’s time to remember the power of sacrifice.

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