This was written for Emanuel Synagogue’s Simchat Torah celebration. I was given the word ‘sacrifice’ to contemplate and then present to the congregation.
When I say sacrifice
My mind races to a hilltop
Beyond the bushes
Beyond the fire
Beyond the mother’s gaze
Stones, knife, altar
A son, a father, a god, a test
And I have to slow down, pause, breathe in the word
With its sacer, meaning something set apart from the secular or profane, something sacred, and facere, meaning “to make” –
I make sacred.
During this latest lockdown I have been making challah every Friday. When I started this weekly ritual we were a handful of friends baking together on zoom. But by week three it was just me and the proofing of the yeast and the luke warm water, the honey and the separated eggs, the many cups of flour, the two tablespoons of macadamia oil and the teaspoons of salt and sugar.
Then there are the hours of waiting, of basting with egg wash, then the twisting and plaiting and seasoning. Some Fridays it’s cinnamon; other Fridays it’s sesame seeds or raisons. For Rosh Hashanah the dough was sweetened with slivers of apple and an extra sprinkling of sugar, and echoing tradition, shaped in the roundness and fullness of a circle, marking beginnings and endings in the eternal loop that is life.
I’ve kept up the weekly ritual for many reasons not withstanding that homemade challah infuses my home with a smell unlike any other. And a feeling that I am calling in my ancestors. That my great grandmother too would have stood at her kitchen bench, sleeves rolled up, arms strong, resilient from the beating of the dough with her bare hands. The very basic food elements within reach, water, grains, salt – just as Abraham asked Sarah when the three guests, the three angels, arrived – make them bread.
The Sabbath begins here; in the kitchen just after sunrise on a Friday. And it is here that the smallest of sacrifices occurs. Not that anyone outside the kitchen would necessarily know it. It is here that a tiny portion of my labour, my ‘fruits’, is set apart from the whole – something holy to offer, to give, to make sacred. As I extract a small piece of dough actually known as ‘the challah’, I ponder my pleas for those in need whilst reciting the prayer:
Barukh ata adonai eloheinu melekh haolam asher kidshanu b’mitzvotav v’tzivanu lehafrish challah min ha’issah.
And then I hold the challah in my hands and say: “harei zo challah” (This is challah). And I then wrap it in baking paper and place it towards the back of my oven to burn.
Historically, in the times of the beit hamikdash, this act of ‘taking challah’ was an offering for the kohanim – the priests. But now, in these modern days, these days with little time or place for ritual, I have a moment to consider all things great and small.
And this act of giving does not have to mean giving away. To give is infinite. We do not know the bounds of our offering, be it material or spiritual. It makes me think too about the service of giving ten per cent of your earnings to charity, ‘Maaser’ and how this custom, again written in the Torah, wages beyond excel sheets and calculators and tax returns. How this simple idea of sharing, giving, even sacrificing – returns to you in some way. It is not the giving up or the martyring – it is the ultimate faith that life is a continuum, change is a constant and there is so much we do not know, but that we can rest in this unknowing.
And when in doubt I turn to nature. And is there anything more godly than nature herself. How can we explain the unfurling of a leaf, its luminous green birthed before our eyes? Or the faith of the caterpillar who resolves to its cocoon, casts the life that was to transform into a butterfly. Or the snake who sheds her skin, time after time, to allow for renewal.
On the weekend I walked in Centennial Park and with this lens all I saw was sacrifice before me. A devotion to something beyond my conscious thoughts. A letting go of the notion of facts. We are so hard wired to make sense of things, to find all the pieces of the puzzle, explain, extrapolate, answer. Who really knows what happens in the spaces in between the act of giving and taking?
And as I walked, I carried with me a small piece of bark that I tore from a tree. So calloused and beautiful was this skin, its inner smoothness surprised me. Like a cherished talisman I held it in my pocket, felt its duality. Considered how this bark could one day be paper or a pencil.
And then thought some more… to a favourite book The Giving Tree by Shell Silverstein – an often times misunderstood tale of the lifelong relationship between a boy and a tree. So much about sacrifice is in the lens with which we view it. The breadth and depth of our offering and our receiving; neither of which can exist without the other, nor even be wholly known.
And as I walked more, I felt the wind and the coolness in the dusk air. Watched the bikes ride around the paths. Circling, circling. Returning, returning. Families enjoying each other and the parklands. How rich is the experience when you pay attention as the poet Mary Oliver would say. To make sacrifice is to make sacred and if we pay attention we will see this.