Sacrificial Lamb, Anyone?

"Sacrifice" is not a word one hears very often these days. It seems to pretty much have fallen out of our lexicon. It 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 (Leviticus), 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.

For some decades now, the pursuits of "self-fulfilment" and "self-esteem" have been taken as necessary givens in our lives. It has become self-understood that Looking Out for Number One is the overriding priority in the business of life. 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 antiquated, pitiful relics of a bygone era.

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 are 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 bore 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 more enlightened approach. "I need space." "I can't ruin my own life for my kids' sake — 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 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 less worthy use of her time than serving some company's success?

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 upon a time, what parent did in their spare time was take their kids to extra-curricular activities. Today we have our own extra-curriculars — gym, golf, bridge, poker, the manicurist and, of course, the therapist.

In fact, it may be that the reason our therapists are getting so much business is because 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...." 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.