What does it mean to sacrifice?

For many, enlightened self-interest seems like the way to go. I look after myself first and you later. “First I put on my mask and then yours if there is an emergency” is the prevailing wisdom. Yet, seeing beyond oneself and exhibiting self-transcendence is the highest stage of personal development. What are we willing to sacrifice, at some cost to ourselves? What are we willing to devote ourselves wholeheartedly to? Also, should there be any limits or red lines to the sacrifices we make? Rabbi Jonathan Sacks said, “We love what we are willing to make sacrifices for…To love is to thank…To love is to give. Sacrifice is the choreography of love.”

An expanded curriculum is available for this topic.

  1. Avot D’Rabbi Natan 4:5 tells a story about how tzedakah and acts of loving kindness replaced sacrifices after the Temple was destroyed: “Once, Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai was exiting Jerusalem, and Rabbi Yehoshua was following him. He saw the Temple destroyed. Rabbi Yehoshua said: Woe to us, that the Temple is destroyed — a place where the sins of Israel were atoned [via the bringing of sacrifices]. [Rabbi Yohanan] said to him: My son, do not be distressed, for we have a form of atonement equal to it. It is acts of loving-kindness (gemilut chasadim), since it is said (Hosea 6:6), ‘I desire acts of kindness, not sacrifice.’” What message does this story convey about the role of tzedakah? How does it compare to sacrifice?
  2. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks wrote the following about how the idea of sacrifice is relevant today: “We love what we are willing to make sacrifices for… To love is to give. Sacrifice is the choreography of love. This is true in many aspects of life. A happily married couple is constantly making sacrifices for one another. Parents make huge sacrifices for their children… [Sacrifice] bonds us to one another… We see this in the Hebrew word for sacrifice itself: the noun korban, and the verb lehakriv, which means, “to come, or bring close.” According to Rabbi Sacks, why do we make sacrifices? How does the Hebrew word for sacrifice reflect this?
  3. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks described self-transcendence as the highest stage of development: “We are not a mere bundle of wants and desires. There is a clear order to our concerns. [The psychologist Abraham] Maslow enumerated five levels. First are our physiological needs: for food and shelter, the basic requirements of survival. Next come safety needs: protection against harm done to us by others. Third is our need for love and belonging. Above that comes our desire for recognition and esteem, and higher still is self-actualization: fulfilling our potential, becoming the person we feel we could and should be. In his later years Maslow added a yet higher stage: self-transcendence, rising beyond the self through altruism and spirituality.” How would you describe self-transcendence? What is the difference between self-actualization and self-transcendence?
  1. Read the story of Akeidat Yitzhak (the binding of Isaac) — which is widely considered the ultimate story about (almost) sacrifice in the Torah — in Bereshit (Genesis) 22: 1-19. The 20th-century literary critic Eric Auerbach famously wrote that the Akeidah is “fraught with background” — filled with gaps and silences that leave it up to the reader to interpret and make sense of what happened. As you are reading the story, come up with your own questions — about gaps in the text, the meaning of specific words or phrases, ethical or theological questions, or anything else you are curious about.
  2. Watch the following interpretations of the Akeidah by Jewish thinkers today (or choose another video from The Akedah Project). Choose the video that provoked your thinking the most. Then share why these ideas piqued your curiosity with your peers.
  1. Reflect on your own experiences with sacrifice and self-transcendence:
    • Who is someone who makes sacrifices for you? What does their sacrifice entail? How has their sacrifice impacted you and your relationship?
    • Who is someone you make sacrifices for? What does this sacrifice entail? How has this sacrifice impacted you and your relationship? Why are you committed to this?
  2. In his book, “On Sacrifice,” the Israeli philosopher Moshe Halbertal underscored that sacrifice is an expression of love: “Love is a non-instrumental relationship outside of what appears to be the sphere of exchange. The other is loved for his own sake, for what he is, rather than for what can be derived from him.” What does the idea of “non-instrumental love” mean to you? When have you demonstrated self-transcendence in your own relationships, whether with friends, teachers, significant others, parents or God? Where do you want to express the value of self-transcendence even more?
  3. Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) 1:14 states, “[Hillel] used to say: “If I am not for myself, who is for me? But if I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?” In what areas of your life do you want to do better in caring for yourself? Where are you already doing a good job in caring for others? How could you be a better son or daughter, sibling, friend, partner, or roommate?

Unlock these resources with a free account

Don’t have an account? Sign up now

Delve deeper into how Jewish tradition explores some of today’s most pressing topics. Plus, check out the other videos in this series.

A division of

Legal Privacy Policy © 2022 All rights reserved

Access these resources with a free account!

Don't have an account? Sign up now

Unlock the interactive quiz with a free account

Don't have an account? Sign up now

Access the transcript with a free account!

Don't have an account? Sign up now

By using this website, you agree to our use of cookies. We use cookies to provide you with a great experience and to help our website run effectively.