I was looking for a story or example to help me explain to all of you about self-sacrifice and how we still keep the spirit of sacrifice and atonement alive in our modern age without the slaughter of animals dictated in the Torah. So I’m going to read to you my adaptations to a Chasidic story I found on the interwebz to help illustrate this point.
The school bell had just rung; school was over. Dana and Danny, two 13 year olds, jumped up from their seats, grabbing their coats and bags as they dashed for the classroom door. They were in a rush, because tonight they were going to their friend Pat’s house to play on his new Nintendo Wii. The boys were enthralled by the brilliance of the games and they spent the whole Wednesday evening playing on the Wii, until Pat’s mother's "Time to go!" shook them out of the reverie.
"Don't worry," said Pat with a bleary eyed broad smile. "We can play some more tomorrow, and the day after, and the day after too!" And they did. A week later, Dana and Danny were on their way to Pat’s house to play Wii for the seventh evening in a row, talking about how awesome they were at video games. But then Dana paused, stopped short, and said, "Hold on. I've just realized something."
"What is it?" asked Danny, panicking.
"Nothing really," said Dana, "I've just remembered the sacrifices," just as I’m sure all of you often stop in your tracks and think about the parsha of the week, especially the ones detailing the most archaic of our laws.
"Sacrifices?!" exclaimed Danny. My thoughts exactly.
But Dana continued, "The sacrifices in the Temple, Rabbi was explaining today that nowadays we can't offer up physical sacrifices in the Temple in Jerusalem since it was destroyed two thousand years ago. But instead each of us is like our own Temple and we need to offer up spiritual sacrifices from our soul."
"Man, Dana, that sounds deep!" exclaimed Danny. "I mean, how exactly do you offer up the animal inclination? Should we go let some blood?" He laughed at his own sense of humor.
"Very funny," Dana said, shrugging. "But really, no blood is needed! We don't need to hurt ourselves to offer a sacrifice. Rabbi said it's much simpler and that it is good for us. Like right now our soul’s desires say that we should just spend another evening playing Wii. The sacrifice we could make is being more responsible instead, for example studying our prayers and Jewish texts, so we can be prepared for our Bar Mitzvahs!”
“Okay, are you officially a rabbi?" asked Danny sarcastically. Dana’s righteousness was a bit boring, but ultimately, Dana was right…a full week playing Wii maybe was a little much, even for Danny. "Okay, philosophy aside," said Danny, "according to you it's not so difficult to offer sacrifices nowadays, so let's go to your place and study!"
The least explicit part of this story, is that in the Torah, sacrifices were used to atone for guilt. There are different sacrifices dictated in this week’s parsha for communal guilt, guilt of a leader, guilt of individuals, cases of accidental guilt versus intentional sinning, cases where the offender is not totally sure whether what s/he did was right or wrong. What was the guilt in this story? (Hear responses.) Neglect? Irresponsibility? The point is, that everyone does things sometimes that they shouldn’t, everyone has things to atone for from G-d and from each other (maybe in this case, a teacher whose homework they didn’t do while they were too busy playing Wii).
In this week’s haftarah reading, G-d, through the voice of Isaiah, says, “You have not worshiped Me, O Jacob [that is to say, O Israel, or O Jews], That you should be weary of Me, O Israel. You have not brought Me your sheeps for burnt offerings, Nor honored Me with your sacrifices… It is I, who for My own sake – wipe your transgressions away And remember your sins no more. Help me remember! Let us join in argument, tell your version, that you may be vindicated!” It seems that sacrifice alone was not sufficient to make amends for wrongdoings. In the Torah portion, when a person sins against another person, the "bad guy" must make reparations to the person they have wronged before they take their animal to the Temple for sacrifice. Then the priest says okay thanks for the sacrifice you are forgiven by G-d. But there is no mention of the person who has been wronged forgiving the person who has wronged them. Was financial compensation enough to repair the lost trust? The haftarah seems to be addressing this, that there needs to be a discourse, an apology, excuses, understanding reached. Now, the practice of prayer have by now replaced animal sacrifice and meal offerings for our need to make peace with ourselves and G-d, and evolved to meet society’s changing needs. But the spirit of sacrifice is timeless, and it’s still important for us utilize our guilt toward self-sacrifice that makes amends with people we’ve wronged and help guide us toward better decisions in the future. This is not to say that you should feel guilty for every little transgression, or that you should dwell too much on fear of sin or G-d. But, you will do something you shouldn’t at some point. We all do. So, when you do, let that feeling propel you toward a more noble future. Sacrifice today should be productive, not destructive.
I sincerely hope that all of you take away from this that good can come from bad, we can learn from our mistakes if we allow ourselves to confront them, and that we will all make such mistakes at some point or another. May you all find the paths away from sin easily, find the atonement and reconciliation after inevitable sin even easier, and above all, may you find in prayer peace and forgiveness from yourself and from G-d. Amen.