Shortly after midnight on February 3, a German submarine fired three torpedoes against the Dorchester, wounding the transport critically, leading Captain Danielsen to give the order to abandon ship. Scores of men were killed, others seriously wounded, some stunned from the impact of the attack. Soldiers that were able to navigate the darkness and the chill of the Arctic air rushed to the lifeboats.
But not everyone could be saved. With less than twenty minutes before the Dorchester would sink beneath the waters, four chaplains tried to assist the men on board - Lt. George L. Fox, a Methodist minister; Lt. Alexander D. Goode, a rabbi; Lt. John P. Washington, a Roman Catholic priest; and Lt. Clark V. Poling, a minister in the Dutch Reformed Church.
At one stage, when most of the men were topside, the chaplains began distributing life jackets. And when they ran out of life jackets, the chaplains removed their own life jackets and gave them to four members of the crew. John Ladd, a survivor who witnessed the chaplains' selfless act said, "It was the finest thing I have seen or hope to see this side of heaven." As the website for The Four Chaplains Memorial Foundation explains:
The altruistic action of the four chaplains constitutes one of the purest spiritual and ethical acts a person can make. When giving their life jackets, Rabbi Goode did not call out for a Jew; Father Washington did not call out for a Catholic; nor did the Reverends Fox and Poling call out for a Protestant. They simply gave their life jackets to the next man in line. As the ship went down, survivors in nearby rafts could see the four chaplains--arms linked and braced against the slanting deck. Their voices could also be heard offering prayers.
Of the 902 men aboard the U.S.A.T. Dorchester, only 230 survived. The Distinguished Service Cross and Purple Heart were awarded posthumously to the chaplains' next of kin, and President Eisenhower awarded a posthumous Special Medal for Heroism in 1961. There is a window in the chapel of the Cincinnati campus of Hebrew Union College commemorating the actions of the four chaplains, for Rabbi Goode had earned his ordination from HUC in 1937. It was in Cincinnati that I first learned of this story of unimaginable bravery, courage, selflessness, and sacrifice.
The theme of sacrifice is a fitting conversation, not only for this Shabbat, but for the next two months, as we embark upon our annual journey through the book of Leviticus, replete with sin-offerings, meal-offerings, guilt-offerings, offerings of well-being and gratitude goes on and on for most of the next twenty-seven chapters. Often the reaction to the book of Leviticus as a whole falls between two camps. The first is to say, "This is outdated. Can't we just skip it and get to Numbers already?" The second is similar to the outrage expressed by students in our religious school this past Wednesday afternoon when they said, "What do you mean we come from a group of people who killed animals? How can killing animals be a way of getting closer to God?"
Both reactions are justifiable. And interestingly enough, even Jewish tradition is not sold on the concept of animal sacrifice. Resistance to the priestly, sacrificial, ritualistic cult is found even within the pages of our own texts. The prophet Isaiah, himself at odds with the priesthood, remarks to the people, "What need have I of all your sacrifices?...I am sated with the burnt offerings of rams, and suet of fatlings, and blood of bulls; and I have no delight in lambs and he-goats. That you come to appear before Me -- who asked that of you? Trample my courts no more; bringing oblations is futile, incense is offensive to Me." Instead, just a few verses later, Isaiah guides the people to devote themselves to acts of justice, aiding the wronged, upholding the rights of the orphan, and defending the cause of the widow.
Given this tension, what do we do with the concept of sacrifice as presented in the Torah? It's a long, few weeks before we get to material that is seemingly more applicable to today's world. Maybe we need to interpret sacrifice, as much more than the killing of an animal. In Hebrew, the word for sacrifice is korban. One can translate korban as a burnt-offering, or can refer to the Hebrew root of the word koph-reysh-vet, karov, meaning "an act of drawing near or close." Sacrifice was the ancient means whereby a person felt that they could draw closer to God.
What the four chaplains did was both deeply honorable and utterly selfless, sacrificing their own lives so that others around them could survive. But there was also another series of acts of sacrifice, acts of closeness, acts in which the chaplains "drew near" to the men on the vessel, comforting them, supporting, them, caring for them in a time of dire need.
We may not ever find ourselves in a position to follow the loving example of the four chaplains, but sacrifice is still a practice in which we must participate today. The care that we bring to other people, a spouse, a child, a parent, a relative, a friend, a community member, a stranger is a type of sacrifice. A gesture of kindness or compassion, a gesture of drawing close to another human being, a gesture of support, of friendship, or of love - might be regarded as gestures of sacrifice.
Sacrifice is not so much about what we must give up or relinquish, but about the focus of our actions, of who we are giving to, of who or what cause or greater purpose we find ourselves sacrificing to. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel once wrote:
Judaism is a reminder that joy is a way to God...The experience of bliss in doing the good is the greatest moment that mortals know...The value of sacrifice is determined not only by what one gives away, but also by the goal to which it is given...Our task is not to renounce life but to bring [life] close to God. Self-centeredness is the tragic misunderstanding of our destiny and existence...In order to be a man, man must be more than a man...Joy is found in giving rather than in acquiring; in serving rather than in taking.
We may not ever find ourselves in the place of the four chaplains, in a place that requires unspeakable heroism, but no matter the circumstance, each of us is truly capable of gestures of sacrifice, acts of love and kindness, acts that benefit others and truly work to strengthen the world around us.
 Isaiah 1:10-13.
 Isaiah 1:16-17.
 Abraham Joshua Heschel, God In Search of Man, pp. 385, 399.