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What Would You Sacrifice to Repair the World?

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As we observe Martin Luther King Jr. Day this year, that question looms large. Challenging economic times are causing many of us to make financial sacrifices for the sake of our families. We're deferring retirement. We're working multiple jobs. We're going to less-expensive colleges. A recent report on NPR highlighted how the divorce rate is down in this economy, as the costs of splitting up are leading us to stay together. We're sacrificing personal happiness.

But sacrifice is different than simply giving something up. Sacrifice comes from the Latin sacer, from which we derive the word "sacred." Sacrifice is not simply giving things up out of economic necessity. It's not only about our post-holiday diet to shed the pounds we gained. Sacrifice connotes something deeper, a connection to a larger cause. To sacrifice is to make meaningful the act of giving up what we have.

Dr. King challenged us -- both his followers in the Civil Rights movement, and the country and the world more broadly -- not only to give things up, but to sacrifice. In the final lines of the his famous Drum Major Instinct speech of 1968, Dr. King presaged his own eulogy saying, "I won't have any money to leave behind. I won't have the fine and luxurious things of life to leave behind. But I just want to leave a committed life behind."

Of course, Dr. King lived in an age when, in hindsight at least, the sacrifices were obvious. In his youth, the country sacrificed material wealth and thousands of lives for the sake of victory in the Second World War. In his adulthood, people from Rosa Parks to the Freedom Riders to himself put their lives and fortunes on the line for the cause of Civil Rights, for the war in Vietnam (both those fighting the war and those protesting it), for nuclear non-proliferation and for many other causes.

What are the sacrifices we make today? Not just giving things up, but giving them up for the sake of a larger purpose? Some of us give up time and money for a political candidate, or a movement like the Tea Party or Occupy Wall Street. Is that a sacrifice? Some of us volunteer our time, or donate our money to charities. Are those sacrifices? Some of us give up products or practices that are toxic to the planet, and pay more money to do so. Are these sacrifices?

Perhaps, if it really moves us to the core. But frequently we donate or we give without feeling the depth of what we're giving up. Sacrifice needs to be deep, truly for the sake of someone or something else, and not only for ourselves. It has to be an encounter with a moment of ultimate concern.

This is what Abraham Joshua Heschel suggested in his 1966 book "The Insecurity of Freedom," where he wrote that, "Freedom is the liberation from the tyranny of the self-centered ego. It comes about in moments of transcending the self as an act of spiritual ecstasy, of stepping out of the confining framework of routine reflexive concern. Freedom presupposes the capacity for sacrifice." To be truly free, according to Heschel, we have to be able to step beyond ourselves -- to see not only what we have, but also that which we give up, in a larger framework.

Heschel here reflects a Jewish sensibility about sacrifice. Because in Hebrew, the word for sacrifice is korban -- from the same root as the words karov (nearby) and l'karev (to approach). While giving things up can feel like an act of distancing, offering things up is an act of approaching -- approaching other people, approaching ourselves, approaching God. To be truly free, according to Heschel, we have to not only give things up, but give them up with the sense of openness suggested by the idea of sacrifice.

As Dr. King knew, it is paradoxically in the act of sacrificing, the moment of surrendering, that victory is achieved. "When people get caught up with that which is right and they are willing to sacrifice for it, there is no stopping point short of victory," he said the night before he was killed. All of us give things up. But it is when we make meaning of the act of giving, when we experience it as sacrifice, that we can truly repair the world.

Rabbi Josh Feigelson is Educational Director of Ask Big Questions.