Why, if a person sinned and wished to make atonement, or he was just in a generous mood and wished to offer something to G‑d, does he sacrifice an innocent animal? Why doesn’t he sacrifice himself, for example?

Answer the chassidic masters: he does.

The Torah, they explain, makes this very point in the verse that introduces the laws of the korbanot:

A man who shall bring near of you an offering to G‑d, from the beast, from the cattle and from the sheep, you shall bring close your offering . . .

As Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi points out, the verse does not say, “a man of you who shall bring near an offering,” but “a man who shall bring near of you an offering”—the offering brought is “of you.” The sacrificed animal is a projection, in the extra-human sphere, of a process transpiring in the intra-human sphere.

Man, says the Talmud, is a world in miniature. Which means that the world is a man in macro. Our world contains oceans and continents, forests and deserts, men and beasts; so, too, does man. The human psyche includes a subconscious “sea” and a “terrestrial” persona; it has lush forests and barren deserts; and it has a “human soul” and an “animal soul.”

The human soul—also called the “G‑dly soul”—embodies all that is upward-reaching and transcendent in man. It gravitates to its source in G‑d, driven by an all-consuming love for G‑d and the desire to lose itself within His all-pervading essence. Its modes of expression are the thought, speech and deed of Torah—the means by which man achieves closeness and attachment to his Creator.

The “animal soul” is the self that man shares with all living creatures: a self driven and fulfilled by its physical needs and desires. Its vehicles of expression are the endeavors of material life.

“A man who shall bring near of you an offering to G‑d, from the beast, from the cattle and from the sheep, you shall bring close your offering.” When a person brings an animal from his paddock as a gift to G‑d, the gesture is devoid of meaning unless he also offers the animal within himself.

The Ox and the Plow

What is to be done with this animal?

The beast within man has not been placed there just so that it should be suppressed or uprooted. “Much grain is produced with the might of the ox,” remarked the wisest of men (Proverbs 14:4), and the chassidic masters say that this is a reference to the animal inside our hearts. An ox run amok will trample and destroy; but when dominated by a responsible human vision and harnessed to its plow, the beast’s vigor translates into “much grain”—a far richer crop than what human energy alone might produce.

The same is true of the beast in man. Nothing—not even the G‑dly soul’s keenest yearnings—can match the intensity and vigor with which the animal soul pursues its desires. Left to its own devices, the animal soul tends toward corrupt and destructive behavior; but the proper guidance and training can eliminate the negative expressions of these potent drives, and exploit them towards good and G‑dly ends.

The first type of korban described in our Parshah is the olah—the “ascending” offering, commonly referred to as the “burnt offering.” The olah is unique in that it is an absolute offering: after it is slaughtered in the Temple courtyard and its blood is poured upon the altar, it is raised up upon the altar and is burned, in its entirety, as “a fiery pleasure unto G‑d.”

The burning of something is the physical counterpart of the sublimation process described above. When a substance is burned, its outer, material form is eliminated, releasing the energy locked within. This is the inner significance of the korban: the animal energy within man is divested of its material forms and offered upon the altar of service to G‑d.

The Eaten Offerings

After detailing the various types of korban olah, the Torah goes on to discuss the other two primary categories of offerings—the korban chattat (“sin offering”) and the korban shelamim (“peace offering”).

Like that of the olah, the blood of these offerings was poured on the altar. But unlike the wholly burnt offering, only certain parts of the chattat and shelamim “ascended” by fire. The Torah designates certain veins of fat (called the chalavim) which should be removed and burned; but the meat of the korban was eaten under special conditions of holiness. (The meat of the chattat was eaten by the priests, and that of the shelamim by the person who brought the offering, with certain portions given to the priests.)

There are portions of our material lives which, like the burnt offering, are wholly converted to holiness: the money given to charity, the leather made into tefillin, the energy expended in Torah study, prayer and the performance of a mitzvah. Then there is also the money we spend to feed our families, the leather we make into shoes, the energy we expend on the everyday business of physical life. But these, too, can be serve as a korban to G‑d, when they are “eaten in holiness”—when the money is honestly earned, the food is kosher, and our everyday activities are conducted in a way that is considerate of our fellows and faithful to the divine laws of life.

The “blood” of the animal soul—its fervor and passion for material things—must be poured upon the altar; its “fat”—its excessive indulgence and pleasure-seeking—must be burned. But the gist of the animal self—its “meat”—can be sanctified even when it is not wholly converted into a holy act. As long as they are “eaten in holiness,” our material endeavors can be a means of a “bringing close” (—the meaning of the word korban) of man to G‑d.