In his classic two-volume study of ancient Israel, Roland de Vaux, noted archaeologist and Biblical scholar, proposes a theory of sacrifice in his analysis of Israel’s religious institutions. His theory consists of three main ideas. These ideas have impacted contemporary Jewish thinking. Here’s how.
De Vaux first describes sacrifice as a special kind of gift. By giving of what humankind needs to support life – that is, some of his food – human beings are giving a part of themselves to God. By depriving themselves of cattle or grain, human beings lose something of importance by gain something of greater importance: a sense of connectedness with God. And by accepting the gift, as it were, God binds himself to the donor in a profoundly spiritual way.
Second, sacrifice offers an opportunity for human beings to share something of value with God and thus achieve a kind of communion. And third, since in every sacrifice the donor deprives himself of something useful, and since all sacrifices tend to establish good relations between God and Man, every sacrifice had some expiatory value.
Echoes of de Vaux are heard through the writing of Professor Abraham Joshua Heschel who see in sacrifice something more than just an approach to God. Heschel sees sacrifice as a way of becoming sensitized to the needs of fellow human beings. He writes: “…to sacrifice is not to abandon what has been granted us, to throw away the gifts of life. It is, on the contrary, giving back to God what we have received from Him by employing it in His service. Such giving is a form of thanksgiving.” And he adds: “The value of the sacrifice is determined, not only by what one gives away, but by the goal to which it is given…What we strive for…[is] the ability to feel the needs and problems of our fellow men.” Heschel builds on de Vaux’s notion of sacrifice as a gift. But for Heschel, the gift is not for God but for people!
Adding to Heschel’s idea of giving back to God, Rabbi Ira F. Stone writes that: “In sacrifice, man gives back to God that which separates God from man, that is, death. In doing so, man is able, for a fleeting moment, to imagine his own death and, thereby experience his future immortality as well. No other form of worship brings man so near the fact of his own death and, therefore, no other form of worship is as effective in liberating man from the constraints of life lived in the shadow of death.”
No doubt sacrifice bears a more sublime message than the mere butchering of domesticated animals.