March 16, 2000
True Meaning of Sacrifice
Parashat Vayikra (Leviticus 1:1-5:26)
Now that my daughter is 11-weeks-old, I am beginning to understand the true meaning of the word "sacrifice." At seven in the evening when I have finished working a long day and I would like to sit down for a meal with my husband, instead we take turns entertaining our daughter. That is sacrifice. At two in the morning in the midst of a dream which I would love to continue, instead, I muster up my strength to feed her. That is sacrifice.
The Hebrew word for "sacrifice" is korban, which literally means "that which draws one close (to God)." In ancient times when the Israelites wanted to appease, thank, petition, or apologize to God, they would offer an animal or food sacrifice of their choicest animals or crops to God. In this way, they believed, God would draw near to them and they to God.
So, too, when I reach out my arms and focus my heart toward my daughter, I not only draw closer to her, but also to God. I begin to step out of myself and see the world through her eyes while appreciating God's world. As I nurse her in the early morning light I sing the words "Modeh Ani" -- a prayer thanking God for returning my soul and my daughter's soul to our bodies in the morning. As I marvel at her growth, I chant "Asher Yatzer" -- a prayer that thanks God for creating our bodies with openings and closings that work miraculously throughout the day. As she transfixes her eyes on her favorite red, white and black rattle-worm, I notice the diversity and beauty of God's colors in the world.
Being a mother has enabled God to call out to me in ways I never heard before. This week's Torah portion also begins with a call: "Vayikrah el Moshe Vaydaber Adonai eylav mayohel moed -- Adonai called to Moses and spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting" (Leviticus 1:1). The rabbis ask, "Why out of all people does God call out to Moses?" The Midrash suggests it is because God knew that Moses was able to join together the Jewish people with God. The quality of uniting people's egocentric tendencies with God's outward nature allowed Moses to be the successful leader he came to be. So, too, the natural presence of an infant who unintentionally challenges our self-absorbed inclination, allows us to see beyond ourselves to the Ultimate Other. To appreciate the little things in life, which are truly big things, that we take for granted: like waking up in the morning, being able to eat and seeing the world's colors.
Being a new mother stirs up many fears. Will I have the patience when she cries? Will I have the time to interact with her after a long day? Will I know what to say or do when she is hurt? Offering up a korban, a vehicle that brings us close to God, illicits similar questions. Will I have the patience to build a relationship with God? Will I spend time to engage in that relationship? Will I know what to say and do when God challenges my faith?
In a sense, when we parent, we renew the commandment of offering a korban to God. We begin to see beyond ourselves to those around us, and ultimately to God. We each become Moses by bringing the Jewish people and God together, one person at a time. For all these reasons and more, I thank God for my daughter.
Michelle Missaghieh is rabbi at Temple Israel of Hollywood.