William Hamilton


“When our first child was born in Brussels, he was whisked away to Intensive Care with a frighteningly low Apgar score” recalls writer David Brooks. “I remember thinking what would happen if our son died after just thirty minutes of life?  Would it be worth it to produce a lifetime of grief for his mother and I?  If asked before the fact, I would have said, ‘Of course not.  What’s thirty minutes of life for a newborn unaware of itself compared to such an agonizing loss for two human beings?’  But after the child was born, you’ve made this commitment to it of the sort you didn’t even know you were capable of making.  And the love is so deep, that you say with conviction, ‘Of course it would be worth it.’  Because even for a brief time the life of the child is infinitely precious.  And once that commitment becomes real, you want to begin to sacrifice for your child.  And these selfless habits will begin to engrave certain character traits they may not have been there before.”

Two things about commitment feel relevant today.  First, there is something selfless about living in service to a commitment.  We delight in serving it.  Our service does not expect to be rewarded. It expects nothing in return.  Deeper connections point to a second aspect of commitments.  When stirred by love, they are faith-warming.   When driven by negative emotions, they can turn dark.  Brutal regimes rely on foot-soldiers who are fiercely committed to a cause larger than themselves.  By contrast, the togetherness of a generously-driven commitment radiates and makes goodness glow.

All three Torah scrolls from which we read this Shabbat (new month, Passover anticipation) relate to the same subject – ritual sacrifice.  Sacrificial service in biblical times was tightly regimented to steer away from pagan norms.  The ancient world imagined gods who were selfish, competing to hoard people’s offerings and attention.  Judaism’s approach departed abruptly, insisting that selfless devotion helped to make us feel worthy of life’s most important moments.  This is why service always involved offerings that were whole (Tamim). 

David Brooks defines commitment as: “Falling in love with something. And then building a structure of behaviors around it for those moments when love falters.”  This is what the sacrificial system – from the original Pascal offering to today’s routine of worship services is all about.

Contemporary paganism finds tribal groups defined by their hostility to others.  Their altars service self-promotion.  They are about building yourself up at the expense of others, rather than pouring yourself out for the sake of others. 

Curiously, when we freely give, we discover how much we unexpectedly receive.  Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote: “The more we do for God’s sake, the more we receive for our sake.”  The less we seek, the more comes our way.  Good-will offerings reciprocate.  May our free-will commitments which draw us nearer to family, vocation, faith, and community, prove to be far-reaching.

About the Author
Rabbi William Hamilton has served as rabbi (mara d'atra) of Kehillath Israel in Brookline, MA since 1995.
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