From Where I Stand
By Rabbi Yossy Goldman
“Sacrifice” is not a word one hears very often these days. It seems to pretty much have fallen out of our lexicon. “Sacrifice” has a negative ring to it, like giving up something precious or losing out on something big. Nobody is getting in line to be the “sacrificial lamb.” It simply has a bad vibe to the modern ear.
Well, this week we begin reading and studying a book of the Torah, Vayikra, which essentially is a book about sacrifices—specifically the variety offered on the altar of G‑d in the Temple in days of old. So let’s confront some of our attitudes towards the word.
It’s been some decades now that the pursuits of self-fulfillment, personal self-esteem, and looking out for Number One have been taken as necessary givens in our lives. Assertiveness, self-respect, not to allow anyone else to make us their doormat—these are all taken for granted. Although, of late, martyrdom has become popular in certain cultures, generally Western sophisticates are not looking to be martyrs for anyone, and sacrificial lambs are ancient, antiquated, and decidedly not part of today. Take the case of Jewish mothers. Those loving, selfless souls have long ago been tried, found guilty, and convicted of smothering their children. “She demanded medical school or else!” “She force-fed me chicken soup—intravenously!” Famous Jewish novelists have made millions denouncing their mothers to the world.
While there may be an element of truth in the notion that Jewish parents can sometimes be overbearing or a little too pushy, I would venture to suggest that the sacrifices our parents, and especially our mothers, have made over the generations are worthy of our respect and eternal gratitude, rather than our laying the blame for all our neuroses at their doorstep.
I think if we were objective, we would have to admire and hold up as an icon any human being who puts the welfare and happiness of others above their own. Why is such selflessness and sacrifice admirable in the heroes of nations and freedom movements but disdainful in our mothers? Surely the successes of Jewish sons and daughters must have a lot to do with the people who have borne and raised them. It is a modern miracle that a generation of penniless Jewish immigrants is directly responsible for their offspring’s smooth integration into the new world and their remarkable achievements in virtually every sphere of contemporary life. It simply could not have happened without major sacrifices and a total commitment by parents to their children.
But that was then. Today, we take a somewhat more enlightened approach. “I should ruin my own life for my kids’ sake?” “I need space.” “I need my own opportunities for self-expression and personal gratification.” All valid needs and worthy goals. But too often we seem to carry it a little too far. Why should a woman who has decided that she wants to be the best mother for her children that she possibly can be, be made to feel inadequate if she gives up her career or even puts it on hold? If she derives genuine gratification from seeing her children well-nurtured, independent, moral, and proudly Jewish, is that a sin? Does that make her an anachronistic bobba?
Once upon a time, husbands and wives did not go out every single Saturday night, but they stood by each other through thick and thin. Once we were taking our kids to extramurals. Today we go to our own extramural activities—gym, golf, bridge, poker, the manicurist, and, of course, the therapist.
In fact, it may be that the reason we run to therapists is that we’re so darn busy with ourselves and we simply think about ourselves too much. “I’m overweight, I’m unfit, I’m unfulfilled, I’m depressed,” and so on. If we spent more time thinking about others and extending ourselves, whether to our own families or the wider community, we might very well be a lot healthier emotionally.
Judaism teaches that sacrifice and selflessness are character traits to respect, admire, and hopefully emulate. The Yiddishe momma of old will be an eternal heroine to our people. Let’s stop being so obsessed with ourselves and our own satisfaction and start thinking about what we are needed for in this world. Please G‑d, we will be able to keep our social and family balances on an even keel. May the sacrifices we make and the caring and giving we do bring us the blessing of real nachas and ultimate personal satisfaction too. v
Rabbi Yossy Goldman was born in Brooklyn and was sent in 1976 by the Lubavitcher Rebbe as an emissary to serve the Jewish community of Johannesburg, South Africa. He is Senior Rabbi of the Sydenham Shul and president of the South African Rabbinical Association. His sefer “From Where I Stand: Life Messages from the Weekly Torah Reading” was published by Ktav and is available at Jewish book shops or online at www.ktav.com.