G. Willow Wilson's The Butterfly Mosque

This week's portion: thinking about sacrifice

If you're coming to Bnai Or this morning to daven, you might want to skip this post; this is the d'var Torah I'm going to offer there! But if you're only coming for the Lunch-and-Learn afterwards, or if you're not able to make it to Boston's Jewish Renewal congregation this Shabbat at all, read on. When I wrote this, I wasn't thinking about the fact that Lent was about to begin on the Christian calendar; I'd love to know how/whether any of this resonates for those of you who are giving things up for Lent...

What do we think of when we think about sacrifice?

Maybe we think of giving something up. "Everyone must make sacrifices in time of war." If I give up something I want, then I'm proving my virtue. "God, I love you so much I'll give up chocolate."

Or maybe it's that old idea of the bargain: "God, if You'll just get me that promotion—make her love me—make him well again—I'll give up television for six weeks. Or I'll give up wrongful speech and gossip. I'll give You anything if You just..."

But that's not what the Hebrew word קרבן connotes.

In Hebrew, those three letters are a root which means to draw near. (In Arabic, the same is true.) The adjective karov means "near." The noun kiruv means a form of outreach (usually made by religious Jews to those they perceive to be nonreligious) aimed at enabling someone to draw closer to God.

That's what a korban was: a way of drawing closer. Our ancestors took it as a given that everything in creation belongs to God. Given that everything we own and everything we don't own already belongs to the Holy Blessed One, what can we offer to God such that the act of offering it will draw us closer together?

A poem from 70 faces:


You'll need a smoker.
Get one from Home Depot
and tighten each screw and bolt
exactly as the directions teach.

Split birch logs, and maple
kindle knobs of charcoal
fan them with cardboard
layer the hardwoods to burn.

Place the bird with reverence
then close the lid. What rises
will perfume the neighborhood,
your clothes, your hair.

Two hours later it's blackened,
crisp and burnished, but
inside: so tender even
a butter knife cuts through...

What constitutes a drawing-near
two thousand years or so
after the last sacrifice, bull
or pigeon, went up in smoke?

It's not the roasting that matters,
that's just barbecue—though
maybe it's a reminder
on some level too deep to name—

but anticipation, and gratitude.
So that what burns bright
on the altars of our hearts
sends a pleasing odor to Adonai.

That's a fairly tongue-in-cheek response to the parsha. I read the parsha, I thought about the scent of meat on the fire, and that's where I wound up. But I think there may be some truth there.

There's a traditional understanding that after the fall of the Temple, the home table of every Jew becomes a mikdash me'at, a small sanctuary. This may be especially true on Shabbat and festivals, times when we take pains to make our tables holy spaces: with white tablecloths, with the sanctification of wine, with challah or matzah sprinkled with salt. But I think even our kitchen tables piled with bills, our coffee tables scattered with old newspapers or children's toys, can be holy altars if we eat on them with mindfulness and intent.

When we pause to bless the food we're about to eat, we have the opportunity to make ourselves mindful of the earth in which it was grown or on which it was raised, the hands which tended it and brought it to our table, the hands which prepared it. And, of course, of the infinite Source of Blessing from Whom all of these blessings flow. When we pause to be thankful after we've eaten, then the food becomes a stimulus for recognizing our gratitude.

Does God "need" our blessings? Reb Marcia Prager taught me to understand prayer as something like the cry of the infant which stimulates the flow of its mother's milk. "More than the calf wants to suckle," said the rabbis of the Talmud, "the cow wants to give milk." God wants to stream blessing into the world; our prayers, our cries, prime that cosmic pump. When we say "please," and when we say "thank you," we're sending our energy toward the Holy One—which in turn stimulates the flow of blessing back to us.

I really like that metaphor. It's one way of understanding why we pray, why we offer our words and our hearts. But I don't think that God "needs" prayer in the same way that we need food or water. We pray not because God needs it, but because we do.

Avodah—service—whether it's the avodah the priests once enacted on the altar, or the avodah she'ba'lev / service which is within and upon our hearts, is a practice designed to shape us. Once the priests made offerings on our behalf, a goat or a sheep or a bull without blemish, in order to help us feel expiation for our sins or to make an offering which would be pleasing to the Holy One of Blessing. Today we offer the words of our siddur, the words of our tradition, the words of poetry, the words—or silence—of our hearts... but the intention is the same. This is how we draw near.

Our tradition understands God as both transcendent and immanent, as far-away and inconceivable as infinity and as near to us as the beating of our own hearts.

What can you offer which will bridge that distance?