Haikyuu! Image credit: Sentai Films.

New Year, Sacrifice… and Anime

Surprising connections about what sacrifice really means

The secular new year is a time when people think a lot about ceasing a bad habit, forming a good one, and just generally writing something better on the “clean slate” we’re given. This often means giving something up, which brings us to a concept that has always fascinated me: sacrifice.

I’ve long been intrigued by the concept of sacrifice – the idea of an ancient ritual entangled with divinity, yet rooted in earthliness, like blood or specific plants, all to fulfill strange requests made by a supernatural being. But, in reality, of course, sacrifice stinks. This is true when it means giving something up. It’s even more true when it comes to the idea of sacrificing ourselves.

When I see a protagonist on TV needlessly jeopardize their own safety, I want to yell at the screen: “Go see a therapist!”

But maybe, I’ve been thinking about sacrifice all wrong. Recently, something made me think about sacrifice and even the examples we find of it in the Torah, in a whole new way. Who was my new teacher about sacrifice?

An anime series.

Haikyu!! is an anime show about a Japanese boys’ high school volleyball team. Haikyu!! follows a formulaic plot, not dissimilar to a number of other anime shows: the underdogs dedicate themselves to win against all odds, and when at first they face defeat, the characters focus on becoming stronger. In the end, it doesn’t matter if they succeed or not. In Haikyu!!, the players’ all-consuming determination overcomes their fear of defeat.

Underdogs do not always win. They do, however, always show up. According to the volleyball team captain, Daichi Sawamura: “Even if we’re not confident that we’ll win, even if others tell us we don’t stand a chance, we must never tell ourselves that.” The team goes to every game ready to fight with everything they have, no matter the odds.

Sometimes, the losses are devastating, but the dialogue in Haikyu!! indicates that their hard work is never for nothing. It’s cliché, but through loss, the characters learn to put the journey first rather than the destination. Often, at volleyball practice or elsewhere, our effort pays off, but when it doesn’t, we still grow, learn, and live fuller lives by working to follow our dreams.

One character from the show, Shinshuke Kita puts it this way: “[We are] built upon the small things [we] do every day, and the end results are no more than a byproduct of that.”

Sports require sacrifice, and dedication. So too does Judaism. Perhaps, by requiring us to make sacrifices, the Torah teaches us to engage ourselves in daily dedication rather than focusing on a far-off future. Journey, not destination.

In Deuteronomy, the Israelites are commanded to “take a selection of the first fruits and bring them to the place God chooses … [and] make an offering saying, ‘We remember how God brought us to freedom… now I have brought these first fruits that you, God, have given me’” (quote abbreviated and excerpted from Nancy Reuben Greenfield’s Parashat Ki Tavo summary on MyJewishLearning.com). Primarily, this directive for sacrifice implies the importance of gratitude, especially gratitude for God.

At the same time, our thankfulness must revolve around the process rather than the results. We have to maintain true dedication, knowing that our first fruits were owed to God—and so we had to keep going and harvest more to fill our own tables. This is no small sacrifice.

Imagine this: You’ve been living on dried goods like grains for months. Your livestock have yet to reproduce and the trees in your orchards have yet to bloom. After working all day in the hot sun with only bread to eat, you are ready to reap the rewards of your hard work. For you, that’s a preciously fresh, juicy sweet apple.

For Shoyo Hinata, the protagonist of Haikyuu!!, that’s victory against another team.

Instead: you bring your first fruits as an offering to God.

And for poor Shoyo Hinata: despite all the team’s efforts and extra practices, the team still loses.

But the thing is, the work was never only about that sweet first fruit, and the practice was never only about winning at volleyball.

Hinata decides: “I have to keep moving forward. I have to keep going!”

Our ancestors offered up their first fruits, and then returned to their fields and orchards.

We can learn the same lesson from the sacrifices these anime volleyball players and our own ancestors were called upon to make. We can find purpose in the day to day, validation from improving ourselves, and happiness from the journey we take, as opposed to what lies at the end. May we remember this at the new year, and all year long.

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