The People & The Book: Modern sacrifices

The life-changing magic of sacrificial offerings.

Painting by Pepe Fainberg (photo credit: PEPE FAINBERG)
Painting by Pepe Fainberg
(photo credit: PEPE FAINBERG)
 AT FIRST sight, sacrifices are not the sexiest topic. But then again, who would have thought that giving away old books and rolling up your socks would be fodder for the best-seller list? If you have no idea what I’m talking about, the underline of this column is a riff on Marie Kondo’s book, “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up.” In her book, which has sold over four million copies, Kondo details her theory that giving away stuff you no longer want can be a path to living the good life, eventually achieving nothing less than joy.
The ancient Israelites had a not dissimilar practice for living the good life, although tidy would not be the word to describe it. This is the practice of offering korbanot, or, as the word is commonly translated in English, sacrifices.
Korbanot comes from the Hebrew root for “closeness,” and one way to think of these offerings is as a spiritual technology for creating closeness, for touching in: to the divine, or perhaps to community.
However you interpret them, these korbanot are the subject of the Torah portion, Vayikra. They are archaic, complex, bloody, smoky, and seemingly quite distant from our daily lives; it’s been 2,000 years since the Temple was destroyed in Jerusalem, ceasing this practice. But dig a little deeper, and the similarities with Kondo’s book – and the path to joy she offers for our very modern, clutter-filled lives – are fascinating.
The “Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up” goes into detail about how to arrange our clothes, books and papers; Vayikra goes into detail about which sacrifices to offer when. The details of either practice can be overwhelming, but the big picture is of a spiritual technology, which utilizes letting go as a means to some important spiritual goal – joy, or closeness, or connectedness.
Through giving away unneeded possessions, Kondo teaches us to let go of our past, of the detritus that follows us through life, in order to be able to see the things we love more clearly and to release old energy and ideas that no longer serve us. And through the sacrificial system of offering animals, birds, and plants, the ancient Israelites ritualized connection with God, connection with each other, continuity of their cultural traditions, and a way to right spiritual wrongs.
As fascinating as the parallel is, though, there is a profound difference in what, exactly, is being let go of.
Kondo’s book suggests we get rid of clutter, old clothes, things we no longer need. We are told to give away anything that does not, in her words, “spark joy.”
The system of ritual offerings suggests the opposite. We offer up davka the things that spark joy: the precious firstborn animals of our herds, the first fruits of our labor, even (later in the Torah, and symbolically) our first child. The best and sweetest parts of what we are given, we turn and present back to the divine.
So, what if we combine the power of these two techniques? I hope the ancient rabbis aren’t rolling over in their graves, and that Kondo isn’t feeling strangely uncomfortable in her exceedingly tidy room somewhere, but it seems to me that their recommendations can be profoundly complimentary.
By letting go of objects that don’t “spark joy,” we discover what does.
Then, we offer a little bit of those things back.
Kondo’s instructions are detailed and written specifically for our modern world. How might we translate the life-changing magic of sacrifices into our contemporary lives? Here are a few ideas: Breath offering: We can begin our day with a moment of gratitude, directing the first few breaths of each waking day to presence, rather than productivity.
Attention offering: The next time we are tempted to check email while we are with kids, friends or partners, we can take a moment first to intentionally connect with the person in front of us, before turning to our phones.
Time offering: When we sit down to schedule meetings in our calendar, we can first schedule in an hour dedicated to caring for others or (equally important) for ourselves, before moving on to work.
Love offering: When we go on a hike, settle into a massage, or begin a yoga class or workout, we can take a moment at the beginning to send some of this positive energy to someone we know who is in need of healing.
The life-changing magic of sacrifice is to take what we love, and offer it up – to the divine, to a person, or simply in our own intentions. With all due respect to Marie Kondo, perhaps this age-old practice can spark an even deeper joy than tidying up. 
Alicia Jo Rabins is a poet, musician, performer and Torah teacher based in Portland, Oregon. Her book, ‘Divinity School,’ won the 2015 American Poetry Review/Honickman First Book Prize, and she tours internationally with her indie-folk song cycle about Biblical women, ‘Girls in Trouble’ –