Q. The Siddur takes up pages with references to sacrifices. Since sacrifice is not part of modern Judaism, is there any point in reading about it?
A. Ancient man took it for granted that sacrifice was a way of worship. He used it to give utterance to his despair at being out of favour with the gods, and to show his willingness to sacrifice that which he loved and cherished most to prove his yearning for divine approval.
The Hebrew Bible shears the sacrificial system of its frightening excesses, toning down and controlling the times, types and procedures of sacrifice. Maimonides wrote, “These restrictions served to limit this kind of worship and to keep it within bounds within which God did not think it necessary to abolish sacrificial service altogether.”
Offerings were brought as tokens of gratitude, to mark festive occasions, to seek the expiation of sins. The sacrifice was seen as being for man’s own benefit, not for God’s. It was not a bribe or gift to the Almighty, as the prophets stressed. The person who brought the offering was the one who needed this means of articulating their thoughts and emotions.
Even when the sacrificial rite was suspended, the idea remained basic and became the touchstone of one’s dedication to a belief, an ideal, a cause. Nothing worthwhile has ever been achieved without toil, suffering and sacrifice. Whether in science or culture, in following a faith or building a civilisation, nothing has been won without cost.
Those who endure more and give more are the ones who live more and achieve more. No wonder so much religious ritual celebrates the theme of sacrifice of material possessions, personal service, and at times even life itself. The real question, though, is not so much whether sacrifice, in a symbolic sense, is a good idea and a noble venture, but to which altar one’s offering should be brought.
The Biblical tradition starkly contrasts serving God with serving the idol Baal. At times it discredits Baal with subtle irony; at times it trenchantly demands that man bring his offering to God alone. “Idolatry, it has been said, is not without its subtle attractions, and men are tempted to worship unthinkingly the most alluring deities.” Hence the emphasis in religious ritual on choosing the right ideals, and the recurrent use of goal-terminology like truth, peace, justice righteousness and love.
The Hebrew word for sacrifice is revealing; it is korban, from a root that means to come near. By moving out of egotism, we find we can reach out to God. By feeling our sacrifice for a proper cause is obedience to God’s will, we sense we are coming closer to God and can never be alone.
Even without a sacrificial altar in the literal sense, the thought of sacrifice gives us the sense of life having a purpose above and beyond ourselves.