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The articles attached to this chapter —
— all point to the existence of two diametric realms: a “lower” realm of darkness and strife, and a “higher” realm of harmony and light, in both the material and spiritual worlds.
The question: What must we give up, to move into the higher realm? What is the price, the cost? What must we sacrifice?
… sacrifice began as a religious practice among the pagan, heathen peoples. Its purpose was to please the gods, perhaps even feed them; giving them presents to flatter them and gain their favor, whether as to specific projects an individual might have in mind (such as starting a business or finding a sexy bride) or the broader desires of the community (rain, and abundant harvests).
Now sacrifice became principally an atonement for sin; “sin” being a concept that will require some explanation, as it’s not the same in Judaism as is commonly supposed among gentiles. One offers a prized animal, typically a bull, sheep or goat — poor people could substitute a pair of turtledoves — to be burned completely on the altar, as a symbol of one’s remorse for having done wrong things. It is, in fact, one’s pride that gets burnt up on the altar: the sacrificial animal is a metaphor for emotions that must be given up.
The New Testament uses the word “sin” (Greek: hamartion) as a catch-all term to name any and all wrongdoing. Such is not the case in the Hebrew Bible. Judaism recognizes three degrees of wrongdoing. There is chet, “sin,” referring to a mere mistake; avon, “iniquity,” naming as it were a “crime of passion,” an event wherein one’s emotions overpower one’s judgment and one acts blindly; and pesha, “transgression,” the most serious of the three, an act of outright defiance against what is good and right. In pesha, one knows full well that what one intends to do is wrong, but one does it anyway.
So one’s frame of mind when one commits the act, may be more important than the act itself.
Sacrifices atone only for “sins,” chatat. Iniquities and transgressions can only be atoned for through prayer and sincere remorse.
The complete sacrificial system as set forth in Leviticus and elsewhere is not necessarily very clear to the disinterested student. In addition to animal offerings, there were offerings of grain, oil and wine. In addition to sin offerings, there were offerings of thanksgiving and offerings of thanks for shalom, or prosperity. In some offerings, the meat was roasted or boiled rather than being burned completely, and the cooked meat then shared with the community.
But for the moment we are concerned mainly with burnt offerings, “holocausts,” where the priest took the item sacrificed and “turned it into smoke on the altar.”
We come to a place where that which is most holy is the same as that which is accursed.
The animal being offered for sacrifice is to be regarded as holy or “devoted;” albeit it will soon be utterly destroyed. Thus the Hebrew Bible speaks of “devoted things” being given to the priests either for their own use or for sacrifice — in the latter case, “devoted to destruction.”
This was not so merely among Jews. The Aztecs practiced human sacrifice; the young man destined to die was, for the year preceding the ritual, given every honor and privilege society could afford, perhaps (I don’t know.) only excluding sex; up to the day when the priest would cut out his living heart and hold it up to the sun.
In the Bible, human beings could be devoted to destruction; not as a matter of human sacrifice, but as a form of capital punishment. (Exodus 22:20, Leviticus 27:28-29) In the Israelites’ conquest of Jericho, every living thing, every object, in the city was “devoted to destruction” except solely for Rahab and her family (Joshua 6:17, 18, 21); and so, in a sense, “sacrificed.” One Israelite did keep some things for himself from the plunder, and wrath came upon the people as a result; he and his family were put to death. (Joshua 7)
Likewise, one account of Saul’s dismissal from the kingship, pertains to his having saved alive certain livestock that had been devoted to destruction. He meant to sacrifice them to the Lord afterwards, but in saving them, he had already transgressed God’s command. (1 Samuel 15:21)
Sacrifice, then, can also be seen as akin to taking out the trash.
… is something of a sensitive subject, in that the process is normally ugly.
And it’s also something about which I personally still have much to learn.
It can occur in ways that aren’t so ugly, and that are socially accepted. Watching an exciting or deeply profound movie; watching a boxing match; watching football; playing football or basketball: any of these things can leave one feeling purged. Meditation is an opportunity to purge.
So is a riot.
So also, however, are housework, hobbies and laughter. Sublimation, for which the burnt offering is a metaphor, is also a form of purging.
In every case, it’s a matter of releasing emotional energies that have lost all chance of having practical use.
A personal experience sticks in my mind. Years ago, when I had my own place, I made great use of empty glass jars, e.g. an empty quart mayonnaise jar. I kept leftovers in ‘em in the fridge; I kept wax in them for my candle-making hobby; on and on, many uses. I would heat ‘em up and cool ‘em down repeatedly, ad infinitum — but there was a limit.
On one occasion, I was working in the kitchen, and one of those jars was on the counter, and I inadvertently knocked it off. What happened next astonished me. The jar hit the floor and bounced, maybe a good twelve inches up in the air, and at that moment was still perfectly intact. When it hit the floor again, it shattered.
In the world I grew up in, if at all possible, if something breaks, you fix it. This jar was broken beyond repair. I might have loved to fix it, but such just could not be. I had to put it in the trash.
Such is all actual sacrifice: the giving up of broken feelings that cannot possibly be made whole.
I was born in 1955. For the members of my generation, the whole concept of sacrifice — along with the concepts of authority, duty and commitment — largely went out of fashion in the 1960s.
Thus, among other things, the skyrocketing divorce rate from then till now and continuing, as childish adults are unwilling to do the work, to make the sacrifices necessary, to keep a marriage together.
But much of the distaste for sacrifice stemmed from opposition to the Viet Nam War. My own belief is that the anti-Viet Nam War movement was populated mainly by people who, in their last previous life, had been conscripted into the Second World War, an effort they never really believed in; who had perished in that war, and resented any possibility of doing so again.
All Americans sacrificed significantly in World War II; all civilians. There was not a household in the nation unaffected. And some resented it. No civilian faced any material discomfort during Viet Nam.
And then there is what the soldiers themselves, and sailors and airmen and airwomen, face; in deployment and in combat. Months, thousands of miles away from home, family and friends; from one’s usual occupation; facing physical discomforts, facing the elements, with no heat or “facilities” or running water.
In combat, women and men lose eyes, hearing, arms and legs. And lives.
The high degree of harmony among those who inhabit higher planes, whether in the spiritual world or the physical world, reflects (a) a high degree of unanimity as to what folk desire for themselves and each other — their values and expectations; and (b) people who are adept at “letting go” of wastes (bodily or physical or emotional) and sublimation.
An analogy that has kept coming to me over the years, as I anticipated writing this chapter, pertains to discord and harmony in the most concrete terms possible: the process of tuning a piano.
If you press a piano key with enough force, a felt “hammer” flies upward and strikes one or more taut steel wires. That makes the sound. The wires are wrapped tightly around a steel peg in a wooden frame. Over time, the piano drifts out of tune: inevitable changes in the room’s humidity and temperature loosen the wood around the pegs from time to time, and the wires begin to sag, going “flat” — out of tune in a downward direction. Each wire slackens to a different degree. If this goes on long enough, any attempt to play the piano will not yield music, but instead jangling noise.
The tuning process begins with the A above middle C. Here there are three wires, that must be tuned almost, but not perfectly, to 440 Hz (440 vibrations per second). At the start, one may be at 420 Hz, another 415 Hz, another 430 Hz. The tuner will try to bring them all close but not perfectly to 440 Hz. If they’re all exactly there, the key will sound “dead;” slight mistuning makes it sound more “live.” So she may tune one to 440 Hz exactly, one to 439 Hz, and one to 441 Hz. That will sound pretty good.
Now, I’ve always identified with one or another of those out-of-tune wires. If I were it, I should think I’d be perfectly content to stay where I am, headed in a different direction from the others. For harmony to prevail, we must all be headed in nearly the exact same direction. I have to give up my position, my orientation, for the good of the whole.
Would I be willing to do that?
Strife comes from clinging to desires that must be given up for the common good.
A stunning illustration of social harmony appears in the murmuration of starlings:
There’s no real difference between “won’t” and “can’t,” here.
The post “Chaos overwhelms the poor” begins with this story:
The less you have, the less you can give up.
In most cases, sacrifice involves giving up some amount of happiness or joy — or pride or vainglory, I’m not sure what to call it, insolence maybe — and folk who don’t have enough of that to start with, aren’t going to give it up.
In my current living situation, many men lack the emotional wherewithal to be HONEST. Honesty often requires a loss of face, and they don’t have enough “face” to give any up.
Honesty is pretty fundamental to getting along in society.
The approach I’m setting forth in this very book is corrective. Following this Way will raise one’s happiness and joy to the extent that one CAN sacrifice as needed.