What does Judaism say about sacrifice?

For many, enlightened self-interest seems like the way to go. I look after myself first and you later. “First I put on my mask and then yours if there is an emergency” is the prevailing wisdom. Yet, seeing beyond oneself and exhibiting self-transcendence is the highest stage of personal development.

What are we willing to sacrifice, at some cost to ourselves? What are we willing to devote ourselves wholeheartedly to? Also, should there be any limits or red lines to the sacrifices we make? Rabbi Jonathan Sacks said: “We love what we are willing to make sacrifices for…To love is to thank…To love is to give. Sacrifice is the choreography of love.”

Sacrifices in ancient Israel

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks explained animal sacrifices in Temple times, and how Judaism made a transition from animal sacrifices to prayer, study and tzedakah after the destruction of the Temple:

One of the most difficult elements of the Torah and the way of life it prescribes is the phenomenon of animal sacrifices… First, Jews and Judaism have survived without them for almost two thousand years. Second, virtually all the prophets were critical of them… None of the prophets sought to abolish sacrifices, but they were severely critical of those who offered them while at the same time oppressing or exploiting their fellow human beings…

It remains remarkable how simply and smoothly the sages were able to construct substitutes for sacrifice, three in particular: prayer, study and tzedakah. Prayer, particularly Shacharit, Mincha and Musaf, took the place of the regular offerings. One who studies the laws of sacrifice is as if he had brought a sacrifice. And one who gives to charity brings, as it were, a financial sacrifice, acknowledging that all we have we owe to God.

Sacrifice as acts of loving kindness

Avot D’Rabbi Natan 4:5 tells a story about how tzedakah and acts of loving kindness replaced sacrifices after the Temple was destroyed: 

פעם אחת היה רבן יוחנן בן זכאי יוצא מירושלים והיה רבי יהושע הולך אחריו וראה בית המקדש חרב [אר״י אוי לנו על זה שהוא חרב] מקום שמכפרים בו עונותיהם של ישראל. א״ל בני אל ירע לך יש לנו כפרה אחת שהיא כמותה ואיזה זה גמ״ח שנאמר כי חסד חפצתי ולא זבח

Once, Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai was exiting Jerusalem, and Rabbi Yehoshua was following him. He saw the Temple destroyed. Rabbi Yehoshua said: Woe to us, that the Temple is destroyed — a place where the sins of Israel were atoned [via the bringing of sacrifices]. [Rabbi Yohanan] said to him: My son, do not be distressed, for we have a form of atonement equal to it. It is acts of loving-kindness (gemilut chasadim), since it is said (Hosea 6:6), “I desire acts of kindness, not sacrifice.”

Why we make sacrifices

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks wrote the following about how the idea of sacrifice is relevant today:

We love what we are willing to make sacrifices for…To love is to thank…. To love is to give. Sacrifice is the choreography of love.

This is true in many aspects of life. A happily married couple is constantly making sacrifices for one another. Parents make huge sacrifices for their children. People drawn to a calling — to heal the sick, or care for the poor, or fight for justice for the weak against the strong — often sacrifice remunerative careers for the sake of their ideals… [Sacrifice] bonds us to one another… We see this in the Hebrew word for sacrifice itself: the noun korban, and the verb lehakriv, which means, “to come, or bring close.”

What is self-transcendence?

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks described self-transcendence as the highest stage of development:

“We are not a mere bundle of wants and desires. There is a clear order to our concerns. [The psychologist Abraham] Maslow enumerated five levels. First are our physiological needs: for food and shelter, the basic requirements of survival. Next come safety needs: protection against harm done to us by others. Third is our need for love and belonging. Above that comes our desire for recognition and esteem, and higher still is self-actualization: fulfilling our potential, becoming the person we feel we could and should be. In his later years Maslow added a yet higher stage: self-transcendence, rising beyond the self through altruism and spirituality.

[The psychologist Frederick] Herzberg simplified this whole structure by distinguishing between physical and psychological factors. He called the first, Adam needs, and the second, Abraham needs. Herzberg was particularly interested in what motivates people at work. What he realized in the late 1950s…is that money, salary and financial rewards (stock options and the like), is not the only motivator. People do not necessarily work better, harder or more creatively, the more you pay them. Money works up to a certain level, but beyond that the real motivator is the challenge to grow, create, find meaning, and to invest your highest talents in a great cause. Money speaks to our Adam needs, but meaning speaks to our Abraham needs.”

Balance caring for others and yourself

Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) 1:14 states,

הוּא הָיָה אוֹמֵר, אִם אֵין אֲנִי לִי, מִי לִי. וּכְשֶׁאֲנִי לְעַצְמִי, מָה אֲנִי. וְאִם לֹא עַכְשָׁיו, אֵימָתָי:

[Hillel] used to say: “If I am not for myself, who is for me? But if I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?”

In his book “The Art of Loving,” the Jewish psychologist Erich Fromm argued that the commandment to love one’s neighbor includes oneself:

“The logical fallacy in the notion that love for others and love for oneself are mutually exclusive should be stressed. If it is a virtue to love my neighbor as a human being, it must be a virtue — and not a vice — to love myself, since I am a human being too. There is no concept of man in which I myself am not included… The idea expressed in the Biblical “Love your neighbor as yourself!” implies that respect for one’s own integrity and uniqueness, love for and understanding of one’s own self, cannot be separated from respect and love and understanding for another individual. The love for my own self is inseparably connected with the love for any other being.”

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