Thoughts on Sacrifice

Often, when I think about a topic, it grows so vast in my mind that a blog post seems futile. How do you say something about sacrifice in a few words? The meaning of sacrifice has changed over millennia; Hebrew has various words for it, none of which translates easily into a modern language. Psalm 51 seems profoundly modern in its reflection on sacrifice–but if you read it carefully, from start to finish, you find that it does not say what it seems at first to say.

יז  אֲדֹנָי, שְׂפָתַי תִּפְתָּח;    וּפִי, יַגִּיד תְּהִלָּתֶךָ. 17 O Lord, open Thou my lips; and my mouth shall declare Thy praise.
יח  כִּי, לֹא-תַחְפֹּץ זֶבַח וְאֶתֵּנָה;    עוֹלָה, לֹא תִרְצֶה. 18 For Thou delightest not in sacrifice, else would I give it; Thou hast no pleasure in burnt-offering.
יט  זִבְחֵי אֱלֹהִים,    רוּחַ נִשְׁבָּרָה:
לֵב-נִשְׁבָּר וְנִדְכֶּה–    אֱלֹהִים, לֹא תִבְזֶה.
19 The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit;
a broken and a contrite heart, O God, Thou wilt not despise.

It seems, on hasty reading, that the psalmist sees no more meaning in burnt-offering–and believes God sees no meaning in them–but instead has turned to offerings of the spirit. But at the end of the psalm, he expresses longing for restoration of the temple offerings.

What is this offering of broken spirit, then? In some way it is provisional; it is what the psalmist has. The offering does not consist in victimhood; according to Stephen Geller, whose wonderful course on the Psalms I took two years ago, this “broken spirit” has to do with intense introspection, with seeing the divide between what God wants and who one is at the moment. The “broken spirit” comes out of seeing.

Jumping now into rash generalization, I find that sacrifice overall has to do with seeing. Or rather, seeing is essential to it. I had grown up thinking of sacrifice as some kind of painful generosity or relinquishment; if you gave more than was comfortable, you were truly sacrificing. Now I see it differently. Sacrifice entails giving what is right; to know what is right, you must listen and perceive. Sacrifice–whether religious or secular–is not necessarily extravagant or painful; it comes with a sense of timing, proportion, and devotion. By giving the right thing in the right way, you make the giving sacred.

But how do you learn to give the right thing in the right way? Through rituals of sacrifice, you learn form; you learn the  importance of the details, the care that goes into the act. Beyond that, you learn through experience. Rash gifts sometimes crumble on delivery; well-considered gifts build and strengthen. But the lesson is not that we should always act in accordance with established custom. Sometimes the eccentricity is the sacrifice. Sometimes even the mistake holds a gift in it.

To give what you have, to give heedfully, both with and without reserve, on repeating occasions and in singular moments–does anyone get it completely right? I doubt it. But no one knows in full what another person brings: what thoughts, questions, and struggles accompany an act of giving or holding back. The outside action is essential, responsible, and judgeable, but only part of the sacrifice. The inside may be like D. H. Lawrence’s pomegranate, “dawn-kaleidoscopic within the crack.”

Psalm 51 quotation courtesy of Mechon Mamre. The English translation is from the JPS (1917 edition).

I took the photo here in Szolnok last week.

I made a few edits to this piece after posting it.


“And wet snow, and music, and nothing ever”

Poetry has been filling the week. This morning I recorded and submitted an entry–“Six Poems About Endings”–for The Missouri Review’s Miller Audio Prize. Today is the commemoration of the Hungarian Revolution of 1848, so we have no school. (Boldog forradalom napot!) It also seems to be Home Repair Day; I heard sawing and hammering for a good two hours in the morning. After that, I was able to record and re-record for an hour or so. Then a neighbor’s stereo started to thump.

Speaking of interludes, my ninth-grade students finished A Midsummer Night’s Dream this week. Here is the Wall performing her monologue (“In this same interlude it doth befall / That I, one Snout by name, present a wall; / And such a wall, as I would have you think,  / That had in it a crannied hole or chink ….”).

midsummer final scene

The previous evening, at our school’s biennial gala performance of music, poetry, theater, and dance, a student from this same class recited János Arany’s poem “Él-e még az Isten?” which I hope to learn over time. There were many beautiful  performances that evening: Hungarian folk dancing and folk songs, classical guitar, rock bands, an brass band, improv comedy, and more.

Late this afternoon I watched a delightful twenty-minute film of Tomas Venclova reciting six of his poems and speaking in English about his work. As he recites his poems in Lithuanian, the screen shows English translations–two by me and four by Ellen Hinsey.

One of the poems ends, in English translation, “And wet snow, and music, and nothing ever.” (Hence the title of this post.)

What holds this all together is the blackbird at the top, not quite at the center, but not far from it either. I took the photo this afternoon when searching for a celebration that had ended two hours earlier. After some walking around–not in wet snow, but in wetter rain–with an enthusiastic neighbor, I came home to the quiet, which now was complete except for stray voices and footsteps.

Quiet doesn’t require completion; it thrives on slight imperfection. It isn’t total absence of sound that makes quiet; rather, it’s a wrapping into rest.


(Photograph by Endre Szabó.)

This morning, before five, I heard a bird song I had never heard before, or at least never noticed. I opened up the balcony door to hear more; the cats stepped outside and looked intently through the opening. The melody was slightly arpeggio-like; the sequence almost always ended in a high-pitched whistle, but no two phrases were identical. I recorded about thirty seconds of it (unfortunately there’s a machine noise too). When I played it back, I could hear the recording against the actual singing, which went on and on. For a long time I still heard it, until other sounds drowned it out.

I didn’t recognize the song, so I listened to various recordings. I believe that it may have come from a feketerigó (sometimes spelled as two words)–that is, a “black thrush,” known in English as a “common blackbird” or “Eurasian blackbird,” a species of true thrush. If so, then I might not have heard it before.

I thought about what it meant to hear this bird for the first time. Now there’s another reason to open the balcony door early in the morning.

I also thought back on an opinion piece I wrote eight years ago about teaching Thomas Hardy’s poem “The Darkling Thrush.” I objected (and still object) to the overemphasis on objectives and strategies in schools. I argued for going right into the poem, posing questions along the way. I hold to almost all of this; I would adjust the questions and observations but would teach the poem more or less the way I described. I revise one thing I said, though. At the time, I believed that students did not need to see any pictures or hear any sounds before reading the poem;  the poem would speak for itself. Now I think differently.

There is a difference between knowing the sound of a thrush and not knowing it. It isn’t just any bird song. It stops you in your tracks. If you know the sound, or one of the sounds, then the word “thrush” will bring those sounds to mind. If you don’t, then it won’t. Hardy knew the sound and expected his readers to know it too. Today I would play not just one, but several recordings of thrushes; I would encourage students to listen for them, if they lived near any.

How much a word can hold. Thrush, blackbird, feketerigó–these are just words for birds, until they become words for sounds, and beyond that, for the the encounter with the sounds, since any word, heard in its fullness, holds an encounter, except for those words that dismiss and disparage encounter, that reduce language itself. I have thought recently about how we live in a war of words–but it’s not just a battle of simplistic language against subtle language, or of crass words against noble ones. Anyone, no matter how rich in vocabulary, must stay alert to language in order to use it well. The “war” is against the forces, internal and external, that dull the alertness, that make language rushed or sluggish; imitative or solipsistic; crammed or empty; abusive or noncommittal. To use language well, you must seek not just words, but their histories, structures, and rhythms; both within and without you must seek them.

There is something to be learned from a bird. I mean this not in a naive or silly way. I don’t mean that we should go around imitating them, or that they hold any life solutions. I mean only that a birdsong can change a life slightly; you hear it, and from then on you listen for it (and reject those things that would not have let you listen before). Through the casting off, waiting, searching, and listening, you find your way into form.

The photograph of the blackbird looking in the mirror is by Endre Szabó. The video is by Liza Bakos.

“This majestical roof fretted with golden fire”

Teaching Hamlet to my tenth-grade students this morning, I spent some time on this passage (in Act 2, Scene 2), which appears differently in the various versions and editions:

My lord, we were sent for.

I will tell you why; so shall my anticipation prevent your discovery, and your secrecy to the King and queene: moult no feather. I have of late — but wherefore I know not — lost all my mirth, forgone all custom of exercises; and indeed, it goes so heavily with my disposition that this goodly frame, the earth, seems to me a sterile promontory; this most excellent canopy, the air, look you, this brave o’erhanging firmament, this majestical roof, fretted with golden fire — why, it appeareth no other thing to me than a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours. What a piece of work is a man! how noble in reason! how infinite in faculty! in form and moving how express and admirable! in action how like an Angel! in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the world! the paragon of animals! And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust? man delights not me; no, nor woman neither, though by your smiling you seem to say so.

Hamlet puts on something of a show here, pretending to disclose his state of mind; even his irony has ironies. Using familiar expressions, ideas, clichés, he turns them over (and his visitors along with them), revealing their underside. Yet one of these phrases, “this majestical roof, fretted with golden fire,” sounds true. He sees the world in more than one way; far from dismissing it all, far from regarding the world as fakery and deceit, he holds both fire and dust. His thick mockery mixes with admiration, not of everyone, but of a few. He can distinguish true friends from false, and he keeps some things to himself, even when speaking them out loud.

Spring is coming, I had my first dream in Hungarian last night (incorrect Hungarian, but Hungarian all the same), and made my first joke in Hungarian today when wishing my students a “boldog szombat munkanapot,” a “joyous working Saturday.” Tomorrow is one of six “working Saturdays” in Hungary this year; in exchange for certain days off that combine with holidays and form long weekends, we are required to work (and attend school) on these specific dates. I was excused from coming in tomorrow, since I am leading services at my shul in Budapest (and am on the train now). I am not thrilled about the “szombat munkanapok” in general, but people have been generous and helpful, and I am grateful for being exempted this time. I won’t be able to take many of these days off–that wouldn’t be fair to my colleagues or students–but with advance notice, I can work out a plan. There’s just one more this spring; the rest come in the fall.

I took the photo from my window early this morning.


Memories of Miss Wing

miss wing

Virginia Wing (whom we knew as “Miss Wing”), one of the great directors of the Winsor School in Boston, died on Monday, February 5, 2018, at the age of 94. She had joined Winsor as a teacher in 1952; she led the school from 1963 to 1988. Here are a few of my memories.

In the winter of 1975–1976, my family visited the Winsor School in Boston to see Charlotte Elliott, a member of the Dutch Pipers’ Guild, conduct a music lesson with bamboo recorders that the students themselves had made. When living in the Netherlands the previous year, we had made our own recorders, which we had decorated with carvings and colors and played at many a gathering.

A few minutes into the visit, I knew I wanted to attend the school; it seemed like everything I had longed for. I was miserable at the junior high school in South Hadley, Mass., where nothing substantial was taught and where I dealt with daily bullying, vandalism, chaotic hallways, whistles, and screaming. Here not only were the halls tranquil, but in each room something interesting seemed to be happening. I saw students focusing on a Latin lesson (the school also offered Greek); some terrific piano playing spilled out of a practice room. (On a later visit, I met Debbie Boling, who would become my classmate and friend. She was holding piano music. I asked her whether she played piano, and she said, “Yes, and I want to play it forever and ever.”)

It would be difficult to attend, since it was expensive and far from home, but my parents and Miss Wing believed that it could happen. After I was admitted, they spoke several times about the arrangements. (I ended up living with friends of the family–first friends of friends, then my former elementary school principal–for the four years I was there, except for weekends and vacations.) Thus, even before matriculating, I began to know Miss Wing’s spark and kindness. Over the four years that I attended Winsor–I was there for grades 8–9 (1976–1978) and 11–12 (1979–1981), with Moscow in between–she, the teachers, and my classmates taught me about education itself.

I think back on the curriculum. We actually learned things; each lesson was devoted to the subject matter, which the teachers taught with insight and simplicity. There were no frills, gimmicks, or fads; we went to the heart of each matter. In English class, we discussed works of literature, bringing out details, passages, subtleties, meanings, and persistent questions. In math class, the teachers not only explained the concept of the lesson but challenged us to see where it could go. In Latin class, we developed an ear for grammar and later for Ovid and Virgil.

Miss Wing brought the school together twice a week for assemblies. I have seen assemblies at other schools, but nothing quite like these. The Small Chorus (which I joined in my senior year, after previous unsuccessful auditions) sang madrigals and other pieces as people entered and exited. Almost every week, Miss Wing gave a short talk on an ethical or intellectual principle; she spoke to us about the importance of putting our name to our writing, of crediting any sources we use, of avoiding plagiarism. She spoke of respecting each other, of appreciating people different from ourselves. She spoke of helping others, volunteering, stepping out of self-absorption and self-satisfaction. But these talks did not take up the entire assembly time; she also brought in performances and skits, from humorous faculty skits to poetry recitations to short plays and recitals.

Why were the assemblies so important? They brought us together not only for updates, but for art and learning. Not everyone enjoyed them or took them seriously, but they still brought us together, not just perfunctorily, but profoundly. I still remember some of the poems, skits, madrigals, and quips; during a reunion, I walked with a few fellow alumnae into the auditorium and marveled at how small it looked now. It had seemed so grand then, maybe because of what it held.

Miss Wing also gave memorable personal advice. Once I went to her with a complaint about a teacher who (in my mind) had been excessive in asking me how I was. I didn’t want that much personal attention. In just a few words–it was probably a five-minute meeting–Miss Wing helped me see things from another angle. I remember that conversation for the shift it brought about in my thinking.

Her opinions sometimes ruffled people, including me. But without someone so sharp and courageous, this Winsor could not have existed as it was. The school was not right for all students, or even for all times in one’s life. I thrived there, but in college I struggled with a less classical world. Suddenly confronted with radical feminism, discussions of race and sexuality, and more, I found myself unmoored. In my sophomore year, I wrote Miss Wing a long letter arguing that the school should help students contend with issues of race, class, gender, and sexuality. This was soon to happen anyway, without my influence; the school underwent many changes. I changed too; over time, I found strength and thrill in what I had learned there. Throughout social and personal upheavals, through the wild changes of the world, the books and ideas lived brightly; I returned again and again to Homer, Virgil, Shakespeare, Faulkner, O’Connor, Woolf. I reread The Glass Menagerie so many times that I know much of it by heart. I returned to sonnets, math theorems, historical documents, and passing insights from class discussions. I heard Purcell and Britten in my mind. This was not just reminiscence; these works came back with new urgency. Some twenty-five years after that sophomore-year letter, after several years as a public school teacher, I wrote Miss Wing another letter expressing my gratitude.

I remember how she would address me in the hallway: “Good morning,  Miss Senechal.” Impeccably dressed, with excellent posture, she showed us how to carry ourselves, not only physically, but in our entirety. I thank her for giving me something to live up to. While I have never attained her example, a sliver of it is now mine.


I learned about Miss Wing’s passing only this morning; since my classes don’t start today until 9:55, I took this time to write about her. I will not be able to attend the memorial this Sunday in Boston–my obligations here in Hungary, as well as financial constraints, prevent my going–but I will be thinking of her.

Photo Credit: The Winsor School, “Remembering Virginia Wing.”

A Street with Gold in It


The Hungarian word aranyos means both “cute, dear, charming” and “golden” (or, more precisely, “having or containing gold”).* Here, on the street sign, it probably has the latter meaning, but with the cat perched on top of the post, it switches back to the first. I was thrilled to take the picture at that exact moment. The cat jumped down immediately afterward.

According to Miles Lambert-Gócs, author of Tokaji Wine: Fame, Fate, Tradition, several historical Tokaj vineyards had the word aranyos in their names, “whether as a euphemism for quality; or an allusion to sunny exposure; or even a suggestion of the old Hegyalja myths about vines containing gold.”

So here we have a street containing gold; at any moment, something beautiful can occur, a fleck in the air.

Speaking of authors, I sent my book manuscript to the editor just before 8 p.m. on Thursday evening. I should be hearing about a title soon; I have made several suggestions and will see what the editor and board choose.

My Purim was quiet–because I had no way of making it to Budapest on Wednesday evening, I celebrated at home by chanting Chapters 7 and 8 of the Megillat Esther. I now have much to prepare for next Shabbat–melodies, instruments (guitar and recorder), transitions, texts, and trope (which should really be spelled trop).

It is exciting to finish a stage of a long project (in this case, the book) and emerge from the den of the mind. I think the Mole in The Wind and the Willows:

It was small wonder, then, that he suddenly flung down his brush on the floor, said ‘Bother!’ and ‘O blow!’ and also ‘Hang spring-cleaning!’ and bolted out of the house without even waiting to put on his coat. Something up above was calling him imperiously, and he made for the steep little tunnel which answered in his case to the gavelled carriage-drive owned by animals whose residences are nearer to the sun and air. So he scraped and scratched and scrabbled and scrooged and then he scrooged again and scrabbled and scratched and scraped, working busily with his little paws and muttering to himself, ‘Up we go! Up we go!’ till at last, pop! his snout came out into the sunlight, and he found himself rolling in the warm grass of a great meadow.

Out in the air, I find people playing in the snow and ice, frolicking over the most recent Arctic burst. The other day I saw two kids breaking ice in the river so that they could watch it float downstream.


Snowmen and snowwomen stand staunch and proud:


It isn’t just that people look for ways to cheer themselves up in cold weather. Snow by its nature invites play; you can frolic in it, make things out of it, playfight with it, make angels in it, sled or ski through it, and enjoy the sound of it crunching under your feet. Snow is never far from water and ice; when out in the snow, you may hear ice breaking and water dripping. The seasons hint at each other.

Work and play speak to each other; one without the other grows wan. In the density of my deadline crunch, I found little jokes; walking around outside, I get ideas for the classroom and for writing. Certain kinds of play (including music, acting, and sports) require intensive work; they are recreation in a profound sense of the word. That is, through learning and performing something, you create it all over again. But even everyday errands (a walk to the store, for instance) can scintillate the air.

That is where the gold can be found: in the work and recreation, in the walking down a street, in the ear for things melting and creaking.


*Aranyos is not to be confused with arányos, “proportional, well-proportioned.” It appears that the “golden ratio” is sometimes called az arany arány.

I made a few minor edits to this piece after posting it.