Sacrifice

Yom HaZikaron begins at sundown. This evening and tomorrow some of us memorialize those fallen in war and as victims of terror in Israel. Note two points. First, it is not a holiday about Jews who have died, but about any soldiers who have died on behalf of Israel. Though the vast majority have been Jewish, some of those who sacrificed their lives for the country were not. Second, the day is also defined as a memorial for the victims of terror as well, and these were mostly civilians. Though most of the publicity refers to fallen soldiers, the full and proper name of the memorial day is: Yom Hazikaron l’Chalalei Ma’arachot Yisrael ul’Nifge’ei Pe’ulot Ha’eivah (יוֹם הזִּכָּרוֹן לַחֲלָלֵי מַעֲרָכוֹת יִשְׂרָאֵל וּלְנִפְגְעֵי פְּעוּלוֹת הָאֵיבָה) “Memorial Day for the Fallen Soldiers of Israel and Victims of Terrorism.” Originally, the day commemorated and was a “General Memorial Day for the Heroes of the War of Independence.”

23,645 deaths of soldiers were commemorated, up 101 from the year before, and the deaths of 3,134 terror victims were also commemorated. The solemnity of the day is hard to convey to those outside Israel. The one minute of silence this evening and two minutes at 11:00 a.m. tomorrow morning are but a small part of the ceremonies. Normal broadcasting stops. Traffic totally stops when the siren for silence sounds. Throughout the land, there are memorial services, intimate family ones, communal ones, mostly in synagogues, and large civic and military ones.  The day commemorates the sacrifices made to establish and maintain an independent state of Israel. You cannot have the latter without the willingness to give one’s life as a sacrifice.

For example, the American Declaration of Independence (tomorrow, I will compare the Israeli and American declarations) ends with these words: “And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honour.” In many nations, independence is only achieved because of the willingness to sacrifice. However, in Israel, sacrifices of one’s possessions – animals and grains in an agricultural society (korban  קָרְבָּן) – are radically distinguished from self-sacrifice. The former is intended to bring man closer to God; korban means ‘be near’. The latter are in service of bringing humans closer to one another in forging the spirit of a nation. The former takes place to compensate for sins; after the destruction of the temple the second time, worship, prayer and philosophic reflection replaced such sacrificial acts. The latter take place even though sins may be entailed.

 As Golda Meir once said, “We can forgive the Arabs for killing our children. We cannot forgive them for forcing us to kill their children. We will only have peace with the Arabs when they love their children more than they hate us.” To take the life of another is a sin, whether in self-defence or in murder. That is inscribed in the flesh of every male Jewish child. Nahmanides taught, and it is widely believed among Jews, that the near sacrifice of Isaac memorialized replacing all human sacrifices with animal sacrifices. I believe that the near sacrifice of Isaac is memorialized in the token cutting away of the prepuce of the male penis to signify that for some causes, such as that of a nation, fathers are willing to sacrifice their children. The circumcision inscribes into the body that fathers, to some degree, cannot be trusted for they are willing to sacrifice their children in war to achieve a greater horizontal nearness among men.

As I indicated in a blog several days ago, some evangelical Christians believe that they sacrifice themselves in service to a pagan Trump because Trump will serve God’s purpose in bringing about a believed restoration of the Christian (white) nation. Trump is turned into a mere instrument for a higher purpose and for the past. However, sacrificing oneself for one’s nation is not a higher purpose, but a future purpose. It has a time dimension. It says that the sacrifice is necessary for the future of one’s nation and for your children’s children.

What about when God sacrifices humans? In last week’s portion, He did precisely that. And before an altar. After a very long description of the various modes of sacrifice, their purposes and rituals and the very lofty ceremonies installing Aaron as the High priest and his two sons as priests, God incinerates those same two sons.

א  וַיִּקְחוּ

 

 

בְנֵי-אַהֲרֹן נָדָב וַאֲבִיהוּא אִישׁ מַחְתָּתוֹ, וַיִּתְּנוּ בָהֵן אֵשׁ, וַיָּשִׂימוּ עָלֶיהָ, קְטֹרֶת; וַיַּקְרִיבוּ לִפְנֵי יְהוָה, אֵשׁ זָרָה–אֲשֶׁר לֹא צִוָּה, אֹתָם.

1 And Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, took each of them his censer, and put fire therein, and laid incense thereon, and offered strange fire before the LORD, which He had not commanded them.
ב  וַתֵּצֵא אֵשׁ מִלִּפְנֵי יְהוָה, וַתֹּאכַל אוֹתָם; וַיָּמֻתוּ, לִפְנֵי יְהוָה. 2 And there came forth fire from before the LORD, and devoured them, and they died before the LORD.

 

The only clue that God had a rationale is the reference to a strange or alien fire that Nadab and Abihu used in the sacrifice. Were they killed because they were innovators and did not adhere absolutely strictly to the regulations set down by God? That is the main interpretation of Moses’ rationale in verse 3. “Then Moses said unto Aaron: ‘This is it that the LORD spoke, saying: Through them that are nigh unto Me I will be sanctified, and before all the people I will be glorified.’ And Aaron held his peace.” This and a myriad of other rationales were offered over the years by commentators – the two brothers had come to their jobs tipsy; their garments were not in immaculate order. Many others using more twisted but somewhat ingenious hermeneutics.

But the verse can be read in a very opposite way – the two sons were not unintended contrarians too distant from God’s precise commands, but, rather, the sacrifice of the two boys by God’s fire was intended to bring humans even closer to God. Just as later it would be said that it is through the sacrifice of Jesus that humans can become one with God, so his portion of Leviticus it is through the incineration of the priests one time, and one time only, that man can be brought nearer to God. That is why Aaron was silent and neither protested nor lamented the loss of his two boys.  That is why the whole nation was commanded, not to bewail the loss, but to “bewail the burning which the Lord hath kindled.”

God planted fire in the human body in the image of the Lord. It is a passion which can lead humans to create. Or it can turn into an alien flame that will end up incinerating oneself.

Over the last two days I saw two more films. In Phantom Thread, a movie directed by Paul Thompson Anderson, Daniel Day-Lewis brilliantly plays a very creepy couturier (Reynolds Woodcock – the name is meaningful) who is an obsessive compulsive mother’s boy who uses women as doormats and designs dresses that, with rare exceptions, are terribly ugly, but are viewed as the epitome of high style taken to be expressions of beauty and the pleasures such beauty brings. What they really illustrate is that fashion taken as art is really a fad of a specific time and place, a trick performed by an artisan to take women in, just as Woodcock does on the interpersonal level. Woodcock takes movement and form and encases it in so much material and so many restrictions that the dress turns into a method of reifying a woman. That is the real secret of the messages he sews into the linings of the dresses he makes.

Another movie I saw last evening contrasted this pretense of exquisite sensibility to overcome the grubbiness of materialism and possessive individualism with a different approach. For it was a bi-op of J. Paul Getty rooted in the drama of his grandson’s 1973 kidnapping by Italians for a ransom.  In Ridley Scott’s All the Money in the World, Christopher Plumber – who replaced Kevin Spacey in the first effort – in his own way is as brilliant as Daniel Day-Lewis, but he plays a more one-dimensional figure, a scrooge who will not even pay a ransom for his grandson, John Paul Getty III (Paul played by Timothy Hutton). Far less creepy than Woodcock, but perhaps even more repulsive, Getty worships reified art and artifacts and despises people. Getty is as fine a dresser as Woodcock, but he uses his grubby possessive materialism to acquire exquisite works of art for their “eternal” beauty. If Woodcock longs for the warmth of his mother’s arms, Getty simply wants to stick it to his dad who never thought he would amount to anything.

The foil for both men are two very independent women, Alma (Vicki Krieps) who is a waitress raised up, in spite of small breasts, wide hips and broad shoulders, to become the muse and model of Woodcock, but who turns out to be an independent force in her own right unwilling to take Woodcock’s efforts to diminish and demolish her while Woodcock only offer sideways glances of recognition and flattery. Gail (Michelle Williams), Getty’s daughter-in-law, married to his dope addict son, is devoted to her children. She is a very different mother than the one presumably Woodcock had, for she is nurturing, caring and self-sacrificing, but not suffocating, even though she personally has almost nothing material to give.

Phantom Thread is a baroque gothic “romance.” All the Money in the World is an action film portraying a real rather than fictional character and an archetypal real-life former C.I.A., Fletcher Chace spy played by Mark Wahlberg .  But the two movies are both about men interested only in sacrificing others, especially women, for themselves, rather than sacrificing themselves for others. Getty is an avatar of possession while Woodcock is an avatar of obsession, the first to use infinite wealth to purchase great art, the second to use his relatively modest wealth to turn a dress into a work of art and his interpretation of aesthetic perfection that is as weird as he is.

The creepiness of both major male figures in the two movies and their foils can be summed up from the women’s point of view by a poem of Mary Carolyn Davies that I used in a play I wrote almost sixty years ago:

Women are door-mats and have been

The years those mats applaud

They keep their men from going in

With muddy feet to God.

There is an ironic note. The one item of obvious fiction in the Getty film is about fire. Gail’s son and Getty’s grandson, Paul, was supposedly an arsonist who got kicked out of school for burning it down and then uses fire to escape his captors near the end of the film. Both initiatives and actions seemed totally out of character because Paul seemed incapable of the initiative to counter God’s fire with his own independent and alien fire. Instead he burned up the rest of his life with heroin smoke until he became a paraplegic. A little historical research goes a long way in helping with interpretation.

Self-sacrifice is to be revered when it serves to knit humans together but when it is used to run away from oneself, the path of destruction follows. It may, however, and often does mean running into the line of fire. And when that happens, we do well to commemorate the sacrifices.

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