In the very brief introduction to sacrifices that we find in this week’s parsha, we nonetheless find all of the major elements that inform this difficult – and yet very profound – concept.
Key to its understanding is to note that even before there was giving to God (sacrifices), there was giving to man. After all, one of the first things we read about the first two human beings is that Chava gave the forbidden fruit to Adam. True, her choice was rather unfortunate, but the simple reading is that it was a classical act of gifting. Along with the first couple’s awareness of the appropriateness of giving was almost certainly a realization that their bond was enhanced by the act – even as the actual contents of the gift ended up being so catastrophic: Chava had experienced something good. And rather than keeping it only to herself, she showed her love for her husband by sacrificing her own consumption of it and allowing him to eat part of it instead. And it is part of our own common experience that putting someone else first in this way is a unique and powerful conduit through which we build a relationship.
According to the simple reading of the text, it took another generation to apply this paradigm of giving to the relationship between man and God. A single generation is quick, given the major – and far from obvious – jump required to move the paradigm over to its new context. Yet assuming that jump could be made, there would seem to be no question about its desirability. For if gifting is truly a unique and powerful way to build a relationship, would we not want to use it in our ultimately most important relationship?
Still, there is good reason that Adam and Chava were not able to make the leap. To the extent that the Biblical characters understood God’s basic nature, giving to Him would require a disconnect between the practical basis for giving and its interpersonal impact. What I mean is that a gift has two major functions: a practical function of providing someone with something they do not have, but would be able to use and enjoy; and a more emotional function of engendering love and appreciation for the giver (and for the recipient, as well). In the human realm, the latter component is generally predicated on the first. That is to say that the appreciation caused by a gift will generally be proportionate to the enjoyment one derives from it. Hence the concept of giving to a God who does not lack anything, required the imagination to disconnect the emotive impact of the gift from its practical function. And it would seem that Kain, had just such an imagination.
And yet Kain’s pioneering endeavor failed (Bereshit 4:3). It is curiously only his brother’s copy-cat sacrifice that seems to actually work (Bereshit 4:4-5). In this case, the textual clues as to why are easy to find. Whereas Kain’s sacrifice is non-descript, Hevel’s is described as being from the first-born sheep and from their fats (or from the fat ones). In short, he gave more select products to God (see Bereshit Rabbah 22:5). Yet it was the very logic of giving to God that made Kain do what he did: Since God does not need products of any type, should it not literally be the thought that counts? For what did Hevel hope to accomplish by giving God something better, when better or worse should only relate to how much benefit will accrue to the recipient?
The reason the quality of the gift to God is not immaterial is that the whole notion of giving to God is metaphoric: Sacrifices are predicated on acting as if God were a person while knowing that He is not. Once that metaphor is in place, all the major parts of it have to be in place as well. And an essential part of the metaphor is how we choose the gifts that we give to another person. We all know that choosing a gift is as important as the actual transfer of ownership. It certainly requires more thought, and quite often more time. That is because the quality of a gift is understood as a reflection of the recipient’s importance in the eyes of the giver as well as the level of the relationship. As many of us have found out the hard way, choosing incorrectly can turn the gifting into something that not only does not enhance the relationship, but actually sets it back.
How do we adapt this to the realm of giving to God? Obviously, nothing will be able to match the importance of God or the relationship we seek with Him. Still, what we choose to give to Him must reflect God’s importance as well as the importance we place on our relationship with Him – at least on some minimal level. Since we are used to evaluating human gifts this way, offering something of quality will provide the correct metaphoric associations, whereas ignoring the quality makes it more difficult to relate to God as would be in order.