D'vrei Torah by Rabbi Ellie Shemtov
Yom Kippur Morning
Highway 61 by Bob Dylan.
Oh God said to Abraham, “Kill me a son”
Abe says, “Man, you must be puttin’ me on”
God say, “No.” Abe say, “What?”
God say, “You can do what you want Abe, but
The next time you seem me comin’ you better run”
Well Abe says, “Where do you want this killin’ done?”
God says, “Out on Highway 61.”
In his classic folk song Highway 61 Revisited, Bob Dylan found inspiration in the biblical story of the Akeidah, the binding of Isaac – the story we read on the second day of RH. As a test of faith, God tells Abraham to take his favored son, Isaac to the top of a mountain in the land of Moriah and offer him as a sacrifice to God. In Dylan’s version, God tells Abraham to sacrifice his son on Highway 61, known as the Blues Highway, extending from Minnesota to New Orleans. In the Torah, Abraham complies, and God rewards him by refusing to accept the sacrifice God had asked for, and instead promising to bless Abraham and his descendants,
כְּכֽוֹכְבֵ֣י הַשָּׁמַ֔יִם וְכַח֕וֹל אֲשֶׁ֖ר עַל־שְׂפַ֣ת הַיָּ֑ם וְהַרְבָּ֨ה אַרְבֶּ֤ה אֶת־זַֽרְעֲךָ֙.
and make your descendants as numerous as the stars of heaven and the sands on the seashore…..
This notion of sacrifice has come into sharp focus for us these last seven months. In particular, we have heard and read countless stories about essential workers and the sacrifices they have been making in order to save lives and in order to provide for us during this pandemic. Unfortunately, we have not always provided for them in delivering enough personal protective equipment, supplies, and resources to do their jobs. Although like Abraham, they heard God’s call, unlike his son Isaac, many of these workers have made the ultimate sacrifice – dying in the service of their country.
The Hebrew word for sacrifice korban, has evolved over time to be identified with three different but related meanings. In its early use korban referred to “sacrificing to” something—in many cases God. The sacrifices made were gifts-- an object, usually an animal, which was transferred from the human to the divine realm. “Sacrificing to” was meant to be a solemn show of gratitude and/or communion.
Later on the term was used more as “sacrificing for” -- giving up a vital interest for a higher cause, as in the story of Abraham, who was willing to give up his son for God, or as in essential workers who have been sacrificing themselves to help the country and mankind during the pandemic. “Sacrificing for” represents an offering made with the intention of achieving a particular purpose.
The third meaning of korban used in modern Hebrew, symbolizes not only an offering but also a victim of a crime, who I suppose you could say sacrificed their life for no particular purpose other than helping their killer fulfill his or her desire to kill.
In Judaism, the ritual of sacrifice reached an abrupt end with the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem during the first century. Christianity replaced all sacrifices with one ultimate sacrificial event: the sacrifice of the son of God. That sacrifice eclipsed all previous ones. Christianity did not do away with the idea of sacrifice; it founded itself on the supreme sacrifice.
In this morning’s Torah portion we read about two goats used by the High Priest in the sacrificial ceremony—one designated for God and one designated for Azazel. The goat designated for God was sacrificed to God on the altar and the goat designated for Azazel? Well, after the High Priest laid his hands on the goat and transferred the sins of the Israelites to that goat, it was sent out into the wilderness. This is the origin of the word scapegoat or scapegoating -- putting all the blame on someone or something. The scapegoat was sacrificed to the wilderness in order to save the Israelites from their sins. Could it be that the essential workers of COVID-19 are modern day scapegoats sent off into the wilderness to do the jobs we cannot do or in some cases aren’t willing to do, to save us?
Each morning when I pray – when I daven – I read from a series of rabbinic texts designed for daily study. One of those texts comes from the Jerusalem Talmud (Berachot 2:1):
Rabbi Shmuel bar Nahmani said: The Holy One said to David: Solomon your son, is building the Temple. Is this not for the purpose of offering sacrifices there? The justice and righteousness of your actions are more precious to Me than sacrifices. And how do we know this? [because it says in Proverbs] To do what is right and just is more desirable to Adonai than sacrifice (Proverbs 21:3)
Of course, often times to do what is right and just, requires sacrifice. Whether that sacrifice means sitting on your couch, helping your neighbor, or sacrificing your life, to do what is right requires us to step outside our comfort zone or do what we need to do rather than what we want to do.
Early in the pandemic there was a lot of discussion centered around making sacrifices for the sake of our economy. We should sacrifice the elderly, the disabled, the vulnerable, the infirm, minorities, working class poor-- for the sake of the economy. It wasn’t so much that people would die, it was more that people should die. In a tweet back in March, Texas Lt. Governor Dan Patrick wrote: Grandparents would be willing to die to save the economy for their grandchildren.
More recently we’ve heard talk about herd “mentality” – or more correctly, herd immunity – the willingness of some to sacrifice millions of American lives as a path towards eradicating this virus. Herd immunity occurs when the herd, a large portion of a community becomes immune to a disease, making the spread of the disease from person to person less likely. However, the more contagious a disease is, the greater the proportion of the population that would need to be immune to stop the spread of the disease.
Measles is a highly contagious illness and it's estimated that 94% of the population would have to be immune to interrupt the chain of transmission. With COVID-19 experts estimate that in the U.S., 70% of the population — more than 200 million people — would have to recover from COVID-19 to halt the epidemic. Millions of people would die before reaching herd immunity. Both Sweden and Britain pursued this strategy early on but abandoned it when officials saw it would not work. In addition, it isn’t yet clear whether being infected with the virus would make someone immune to future infection.
We have all made sacrifices during this pandemic and we will need to continue to do so for the foreseeable future. In March and April, The Rutland Jewish Center celebrated two Zoom Bar Mitzvahs and as it happens both Torah portions, coming from the book of Leviticus, were focused on sacrifices. If you aren’t connecting to my words about sacrifice, maybe listening to some of what Sam and Ezra spoke about will do it for you.
Sam wrote: Sometimes …. we make sacrifices to benefit others……So here’s a challenge I pose to you. Try making a sacrifice today and every day to better the world. It can be small like taking the time out of your day to say kind words to a stranger or something as large as sacrificing your hard earned money and donating it to a charity. It doesn't matter what you do. The only thing that matters is that you do it.
Ezra interpreted sacrifice as being about rules: Modern society often rebels against being told what to do…... We like spontaneity and freedom more than rules. Rules can be hard and annoying like having to wake up at a certain time for school, and being marked tardy when you are 30 seconds late…….. Lots of rules are hard to follow. But rules aren’t all bad, they can help us know what to do especially in new situations. For example, we are all facing new rules today like not having large gatherings to prevent the spread of the virus. The rules help us know what to do.
COVID-19 is one of a number of crises facing us right now, but as both Sam and Ezra noted, you don’t have to be a first responder or an essential worker to make a sacrifice and help the world during these difficult times. It doesn’t matter where you offer your sacrifice -- on Mount Moriah, on Highway 61 or in Rutland, Vermont. It doesn’t matter if you choose to do it out of faith; out of a sense of duty; out of a desire to make a difference, or because it’s the right thing to do, the world needs you. So just do it. Make that sacrifice but more importantly, do what is right and just, because: To do what is right and just is more desirable to Adonai than sacrifice (Proverbs 21:3)
I began with the words of Bob Dylan and I will end with the words of Bob Dylan:
Blowin in the Wind by Bob Dylan
How many times must a man look up
Before he can see the sky?
Yes, 'n' how many ears must one man have
Before he can hear people cry?
Yes, 'n' how many deaths will it take 'til he knows
That too many people have died?
The answer, my friend, is blowin' in the wind
The answer is blowin' in the wind
G’mar Chatima Tova, Wishing you all an easy fast.
 Moshe Halbertal. On Sacrifice. (Princeton : Oxford University Press, c2012) 1
 Ibid. 7