Today is Friday and Shabbat starts in about four hours. If things go as planned, by the time Shabbat comes in next week, I’ll be recovering from a C-section and we’ll have two healthy little benim screaming their heads off at home or in the maternity ward.

An old Jewish tradition called challah kabbalah, or separating the challah, is often observed before major life events like childbirth. Some women do it every week, some women do it only once a year, and because I had no personal or family ritual as a convert, I decided to do what Udi’s family does – before major events, especially the birth of a baby (or babies!). You make the challah, and before you bake it, you take away an olive sized piece, wrap it in foil, and burn it. The burned portion represents a sacrifice to God that sanctifies the rest of the bread, as well as the process of making it. There’s a blessing you can say, but many women pray throughout the process. I’m not much of a pray-er, per se, but I did take the time to think about the process and was surprised to find myself finding the concept of sacrifice as feeling particularly meaningful.

In the olden days, back when the Temple was in Jerusalem, sacrifice was literal. In the “newen days,” as a boy I nannied once called modern times, sacrifice is much more metaphorical. We don’t talk about it much, and I think our cultural moment often runs in the other direction. If something requires you to give up your “true self,” whatever that means, don’t do it. You’re perfect just the way you are. Technology continues to make it easier than ever before to pass off plagiarized work as our own. We are encouraged to cut off “toxic” family and friends, and while there is certainly a time and a place for severing unhealthy relationships, most of the “cutting off” that I’ve seen has more to do with differences in political orientation and the rejection of imperfect people, along with a healthy dose of utter lack of self-awareness.

In any case, sacrifice as a concept, if it gets thought about at all, gets something of a bad rap today. This is unfortunate for a number of reasons, not least of which is that we seem to have forgotten that delayed gratification and the obtainment of something that takes enormous work is incredibly gratifying and allows us to hold ourselves in greater esteem. But it also makes it harder to have important conversations about what sacrifice means, what it looks like, and how it can help us achieve higher goals and more satisfying relationships.

Superficially, the statement that “hard work and sacrifice help us get where we want to go” might seem like a truism. We could all agree that sleeping more, eating healthier, and giving up other bad habits would make our lives better. But sacrifice as a biblical concept is interesting because it doesn’t involve giving up bad habits – instead, it’s the proactive act of taking the best of whatever you have and giving up that. A lamb without blemish, a firstborn son – these aren’t exactly junk food or video games. A real sacrifice is giving up something good, something you really want, for something even better.

When you have explicit cultural and scriptural guidance for how to make the right kind of sacrifice, the act itself may be difficult but the path forward, at least, is clear. Figuring out how to do this in the modern age is anything but. What should be sacrificed? How? The institutions that were meant to give us those answers – churches, universities, communities – have broken down and been replaced by a message, driven in large part by commercial marketiing, that one can simply have it all. This is a message that, if we’re being honest, we all know isn’t true. But figuring out what to give up on our own is incredibly difficult.

I can’t give everyone an answer, because the things we want and our reasons for wanting them are vastly different. What I can do is share my own experience and explain why some of the sacrifices I’ve made have been so very hard, but so totally worth it.

Coming to Israel and getting married were both things I wanted – at least conceptually – but the process of doing them was often incredibly difficult. There were times I existentionally questioned the choices I was making and, because I am who I am, I contemplated simply calling it quits and running away more than once. Getting pregnant and managing the pregnancy was even harder, and not just because I had to give up things like sushi and beer that I really like. I was miserable – really miserable – for a good portion of the pregnancy, and even though the end is in sight, I’m so uncomfortable or in so much pain for so much of the day and night that it’s hard to think about ever doing it again.

But if I had to do the hardest parts of the last couple of years over again, I would, many times, because the payoff has been so worth it. Figuring out how to really compromise with my husband, learning to be more honest, admitting that I can be as much of a stubborn asshole as anyone else, and puking my guts out in public during the interminable first trimester all sucked mightily. I did not like doing these things and I resented my husband, myself, and life in general while they happened.

Even harder was that I resented giving up the good things that I really wanted or enjoyed, but which needed to be sacrificed, to make all this happen. Living close to American family and friends, teaching English literature as a career option, the freedom to go anywhere, anytime, time and space for reading and quilting and growing a garden – it’s not like these things are bad habits. Arguably, they’re all really good and important things. They won’t all be gone forever. But to get where I really wanted to go, I had to give them up and stay focused on other goals that are, to me, more important in the long run – having a family, putting them first, building a community and living as part of a religion I respect.

So as I burn the challah this week and say goodbye to sleep, the peace and quiet of a home with just me and Udi, the time to read and sew and play the piano whenever I want, the freedom to travel unburdened, the closing off of ever more options of every kind that no longer available, I believe – I hope – that for these boys, this family, and the life we are building together, the sacrifice of other things I also want will be worth it.

As always, I’m pretty sure I’m right because my life is already so full of goodness that just keeps getting better. I’ll try to maintain that perspective through the many years of future sleepness nights. Shabbat shalom, y’all, and pending an unforeseen disaster, I’ll be writing the next blog post through bloodshot eyes and several cups of coffee.

P.S. That picture of the challah is the one I made. I’m v proud of myself.

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