Thoughts on Sacrifice

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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.

 

Havel havalim (Koheleth)

hevel

Reading Koheleth (Ecclesiastes), I sit up in awe, drop stray thoughts, and listen again and again to the second verse (translated as “vanity of vanities,” etc.). Then I start hearing its cadences everywhere: in Shakespeare (as do others), in Mahler, in poem after poem, song after song, film after film. This poem holds millions of breaths.

I was first introduced to Koheleth as a teenager, through Orwell’s essay “Politics and the English Language,” via Strunk and White’s Elements of Style. Here’s Orwell:

Now that I have made this catalogue of swindles and perversions, let me give another example of the kind of writing that they lead to. This time it must of its nature be an imaginary one. I am going to translate a passage of good English into modern English of the worst sort. Here is a well-known verse from Ecclesiastes:

I returned and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.

Here it is in modern English:

Objective considerations of contemporary phenomena compel the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account.

For a long time, that was all I knew of it. I understood that its language was vivid and lilting and that it looked askance at the world. I read parts of it here and there–but did not begin to understand the whole until I first heard it chanted in Hebrew (just a few years ago). Then I sensed its coherence–not quick meaning, but unity and movement–and a joy mixed in with the sadness, a joy of walking through life.

Just a week ago I started learning the first few verses, with trope and all. It was then that I fell in love with the second verse.

Havel havalim, amar Koheleth; havel havalim, hakol havel.

The whole verse sounds like a sigh; this is no coincidence, as “hevel” originally meant “vapor” or something similar.

The Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament states (in volume 3, p. 315): “In virtue of its supposed onomatopoeic origin, hebhel consistently retains the meaning of “breath” and, especially with reference to the visible aspect, although possibly delimited by the stronger ruach, “vapor, mist, smoke.” … Ideas of transitoriness and fleetingness are associated with the word when it means “breath,” and these tend to point toward an abstract connotation (cf. the LXX). This tendency is aided by the capability and openness of onomatopoeic words for new meanings.” This paragraph continues–and it’s part of a much longer entry–but I want to get back to the second verse and the joy.

The noun hevel (or hebel), with root heh-bet-lamed, appears in this verse in three forms:

  1. havel (with a long “e” and a stress on the second syllable): the construct form of hevel. This indicates that it accompanies the noun that follows.
  2. havalim: the plural of hevel.
  3. havel (with a short “e” and a stress on the first syllable): the pausal form of hevel.

This verse not only shivers with alliteration (not only of havel, havalim, and havel, but also of hakol and Koheleth), but takes a single word and turns it around and around.

Vapor of vapors, says Koheleth; vapor of vapors, all is vapor.

But even this does not recreate the morphology and cadences. Here is my recording of the first three verses. Here, also, is a wonderful recording (and video of the text) by Rabbi Moshe Weisblum.

What is it about this verse (and the poem as a whole) that brings joy?

Koheleth is not conducive to takeaways. Its message is not “enjoy life” or “fear God”; it holds up both. In terms of theology and philosophy, it stands out as one of the most puzzling Biblical texts. (I would love to take Stephen Geller’s course on it; I have taken his course on the Psalms.)

Still, for all its complexity, the poem has a gesture of learning, of seeing beyond illusions.

If success, fame, power, labor, even wisdom are all vapors, then life is anything but futile. It is possible to understand a little more each day and to walk with understanding. Koheleth is a long and wistful walk.

Image credit: I took this photo today in Fort Tryon Park. It reminded me of the second verse.