Following the pogroms in Eastern Europe of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, a large wave of Jews immigrated to America. Life was not easy in the new world – it was hard to eke out a living sans language and in a hostile environment.
The challenge lay not in the absence of work – at that time, America was humming along. But one was no longer in the shtetl of Der Heim – the Jewish town of Europe, where everyone was of like mind and creed. Here, in America, you were expected to work a seven-day week and refusal to work on Shabbat meant immediate dismissal.
But many a pious Jew did what the Almighty expected of them. Each Friday would arrive and they would be forced essentially to quit their jobs in order to observe the Sabbath. Sunday would roll around and they would seek employment anew – hardly a formula for job security or advancement.
Nevertheless, despite the immense pressures and demands placed on those who wished to maintain their religious commitment, Jewish life in America began to flourish and the seeds were sown for the vibrant American Judaism we see today. The new immigrants used every last penny they had to build synagogues, schools, yeshivas and mikvahs. They employed rabbis, teachers, mohels and shochets, to ensure that they and their children had the necessary infrastructure to keep their heritage intact and build Judaism in the new world. While they struggled in their own personal lives they spared no expense to establish a solid foundation of communal life.
Such self-sacrifice is a rarity indeed in our twenty-first century lives of abundance, prosperity and affluence. Sadly, however, financial security has brought in its wake much more serious concerns. Despite the fact that we have achieved the good-life, many of us were considerably more spiritually secure in those days of yore.
What went wrong with our spiritual lives?
Concerning the daily offering, the Torah states, “Command the Children of Israel concerning My sacrifice, My bread.” This verse teaches that we must all offer a sacrifice to G-d, called the ‘tamid,’ every morning and late afternoon. It was offered as a communal sacrifice on behalf of every individual.
Asks the Mishnah: How can a person not be present when making a sacrifice? It’s impossible for everyone to be present at the Temple every day. And yet how can one make a sacrifice in absentia?
In order to resolve this problem, the Prophets divided the nation into twenty four groups called the ‘mishmar,’ each consisting of priests, Levites and Israelites. Each mishmar would act on behalf of the nation for a period of one week rotation. The priests, Levites and a portion of Israelites of the mishmar would go up to Jerusalem and serve in the Holy Temple while the remaining Israelites would gather in their town square for the week in communal prayer, called the ‘maamad.’ The maamad service consisted of fasting, praying and reading the creation story from the Torah.
The words of the Mishnah are so powerful: How can a person not be present when making a sacrifice? The problem today is that all the sacrifices have already been made for us. We want our Judaism sans sacrifice. Gone are the days of religious persecution at the hands of European Christians. Gone are the days when you would have to quit your job every week in order to maintain your commitment to the Almighty. Our generation almost has it too easy. And when we’re handed everything on a silver platter, we sadly take it for granted.
Is all lost? Are there no more opportunities for sacrifice? Of course there are! But the sacrifices that we are called upon to make today are much more subtle. Today, sacrifice means choosing to spend tens of thousands of dollars a year on providing your children with a good Jewish education. Today, sacrifice means sending your kids to extra-curricular Jewish programs after school, which isn't easy when you're competing with a host of other activities, from sports to dance to drama. Today, self-sacrifice means getting home exhausted from work, finding time to learn Torah with your children and then dragging yourself off to an adult education shiur (class).