The Meaning of Sacrifice

A friend who is a melamed approached me some time after I had written a column about what we pay our children’s rebbeim (“Free Markets and the Price of Peace of Mind,” June 1, 2016), in which I make the argument that it is in the interests of parents to advocate for higher salaries. The perspective he shared with me got me thinking in a broader way about the point he made.

“People truly don’t realize what a sacrifice it is to be a melamed,” he told me. “I’m not being critical; I myself was the same way! Even after I became a rebbi, it took some time for me to make peace with the fact that I was essentially signing up for a life where parnassah would be a constant struggle. But that’s part of the package that comes with doing something that’s inherently valuable.”

While my friend was referring only to himself, the same is true about many other aspects of life. When we think about mesirus nefesh, we often forget that, by definition, mesirus nefesh requires sacrifice. So when we see all that we cannot have, or cannot enjoy, instead of trying to make it all “kosher” and attainable, perhaps we really ought to be reminding ourselves that part of what makes our lives as frum Jews so special is what we sacrifice for it.

Its inherent value should be worth so much to us that we don’t see what we don’t have as something we are giving up, but rather as something that is worth doing without for the greater good we are getting. (See Igros Moshe Yoreh Deah, vol. 3, siman 71.)

But it is the way of the world, I suppose, for people to want to get recognition as though they are sacrificing for an ideal while insisting that they should also be allowed to realize the ideal without giving anything up for it. If that were possible, there would be absolutely no reason to hold individuals who do so in high regard; there is absolutely nothing special about what they are doing.

While this certainly has ramifications in the world we inhabit, there are more extreme examples which play out in front of us in the olam hasheker. Perhaps the fact that these occurrences take place in a world so removed from ours will make it easier for us to recognize the absurdity of it all, and apply that lesson to our own lives as well.

The news, as of late, has been abuzz with the “demonstration” a professional football player has been carrying out. When the national anthem is played, as it is before all sporting events, he chooses to sit instead of standing to show respect, as is traditionally done.

His hope, he says, with this demonstration, is to highlight the injustices black people are faced with in 21st-century America. A worthy cause, to be sure, as society has failed no segment of the population as we have that one. But one has to wonder how disrespecting the flag and those who fought for it serves to advance the cause he claims to want to advance.

President Obama has already weighed in on the criticism being leveled against this athlete for disrespecting the flag (there’s probably nothing else important to occupy his time with) by opining that the demonstration was an exercise of the First Amendment. And the head of the NAACP made the bizarre statement equating an athlete who makes $15 million a year sitting on the bench, with Rosa Parks — which is the ultimate disrespect for Parks, who went to jail for not giving up her seat on a public bus.

And the coach of the U.S. hockey team is getting criticized for saying that while players on his team are free to pull the same kind of stunt, they need to know that sitting through the national anthem means that they will also be sitting through the entire game. This (reasonable position) is being criticized as being somehow against the First Amendment.

Those who are complaining remind me of the Republican politicians who “stood on principle” and voted against their party leadership, and then complained when they had to suffer the consequences of their actions by losing committee assignments. You don’t get credit for standing for principle when you don’t sacrifice anything to make that stand.

The same is true about demonstrations. If you are still cashing your $15 million checks and whining that people don’t like that you’re disrespecting members of the military, or you aren’t ready to give up a game’s paycheck to make your point, where do you find the brazenness to insist that others take you more seriously than you do yourself?

And if we aren’t ready (and happy) to do without all that the world has to offer so that we can better serve Hashem, aren’t we being the same way?