Nearer to G-d are We

12 April 2022

A brief reflection on the roots of sacrifice for Pesach. Published in the “Passover 2022” issue of Shibboleth.

In observance of Pesach, we read in the coming days of the deliverance from Egypt, the plagues sent upon Pharaoh, and, centrally, the Passover Sacrifice offered by our ancestors to G-d in the struggle for freedom and self-determination. Sacrifice—קרבן korban in Hebrew—is a recurring motif through Tanakh, though its practice is one that holds little salience to Jews today, save for the learning we read each morning of its practice and the prayers we offer in its place. Its ritual seems to many arcane and prosaic, distant indeed from the daily practice of contemporary Judaism, which substitutes prayer in lieu of offerings of animals and grain. What, then, can we learn from studying these rites whose direct relevance is contingent on the consecration of a new temple?

If you’ll permit a linguist his indulgences, I believe an answer—one among many—may be found in the word קרבן korban itself, and in its various senses. We most commonly translate korban as “offering” or its latinate equivalent sacrifice, from the contraction of sacer and facio, meaning literally “that which sanctifies.” This idea is not foreign to Judaism, and is found quite liberally throughout our prayers and liturgy, from the asher kiddeshanu of our daily blessings to the mekadeish of the Kiddush spoken every Shabbat. These holy phrases all share a root: קד״ש, meaning “holy,” found also in the name of the temple itself: beit hamikdash. Yet korban does not derive from this root, but from another: קר״ב. Students of Hebrew may recognize this root from the common adjective קרוב karov, meaning “near.”

The korbanot then are not only sacrifices offered to G-d in the hopes of making life more holy; they are instruments of intimacy which draw us nearer, as a people and as individuals. But nearer to what? Certainly, in one sense, to G-d. In offering sacrifices, we give back a small token of thanks for what G-d gives us and in doing so bind ourselves closer to our creator. But equally, we are drawn closer to one another. In action, in prayer, and in love, we become closer to each other. As a nation, as a people, and as a community.

We no longer have a temple at which to offer korbanot, and we will have to wait until redemption to offer at its altars once again. For the past several years, our own community has struggled without its home. But in the absence of place, we still have ourselves and our dedication to better the world in which we live. In our actions and prayers, we draw ourselves closer, to G-d and each other.