The Torah portion of Lech Lecha relates that Avraham built three altars to G‑d.1 Rashi , basing his commentary on the Midrash2 , explains that Avraham built the first altar “upon hearing G‑d’s promise that he would have children, and that they would inherit the land of Israel.”3

Rashi goes on to state that he erected the second altar — in the vicinity of Ai — because “he saw in his prophecy that his progeny would stumble there through the sin of Achan. He therefore prayed for them there.”4

However, no explanation is given by Rashi as to the reason for Avraham’s third altar, since Avraham built it out of his simple love of G‑d upon his arrival in the city of Chevron.

Our Sages inform us5 that “G‑d gave Avraham a sign that all that transpired with him will transpire with his children as well.” This is so because the actions of the Patriarchs serve as an antecedent and a catalyst for the subsequent actions of their descendants.

Thus, the altars built by Avraham empowered his progeny to successfully bring offerings upon the altars in the Mishkan and the first and second Beis HaMikdash.

How did Avraham accomplish the building of these three altars?

The Gemara relates6 that the altars performed three primary functions: they provided sustenance to the entire world; they negated any harsh decrees against the Jewish people by bringing about atonement for their sins; and they caused the Jewish people to be loved by G‑d.

These three functions correspond to the three general categories of offerings: Olah — which were wholly consumed upon the altar; Chatos — atonement offerings; and Shelamim — peace offerings:

The Shelamim — parts of which were eaten by those who brought them — symbolize the altar’s function of providing the world with sustenance; just as the owners were able to physically sustain themselves by eating parts of the offerings, so too is the “entire world sustained in the merit of the offerings.”

Chatos — offerings that brought atonement — served to negate any and all harsh decrees, and caused the Jewish people to be forgiven for their sins.

The wholly consumed Olah , offered “entirely for G‑d’s glory,”7 without any ulterior motive, served to make the Jews even more loved by G‑d.

The bringing of offerings was deemed to be so important that the generic term “service” (Avodah) is applied to it.8 It thus follows that in our day-to-day service to G‑d, which mirrors the “service of offerings,” we will also find the three above-mentioned categories:

First and foremost is the ongoing service of Torah and mitzvos — similar to the Shelamim offering — which continually provides a Jew with his physical and spiritual sustenance.

The second general aspect of Divine service — similar to the Chatos offering — is that of repentance and atonement; even when one — G‑d forbid — transgresses, one is able to gain forgiveness through repentance and atonement.

However, a Jew achieves total unification with and attachment to G‑d only through the service of mesirus nefesh complete, absolute and selfless dedication, similar to the wholly consumed Olah offering.

In this state, a person dedicates himself to G‑d not for the sake of physical or even spiritual reward, but solely for the sake of G‑d’s glory, with no thought of self. By acting in such a manner a Jew becomes “ever the more loved by G‑d.”

Avraham’s building of three altars and their effect on his progeny can be understood accordingly: he thereby laid the foundations for the three general aspects of Divine service practiced by the Jewish people throughout history.

The first altar — built upon hearing G‑d’s promise about children and the land — relates to the physical and spiritual sustenance achieved through the ongoing service of Torah and mitzvos.

The second altar — wherein he prayed that the sin of Achan be forgiven — involves repentance, atonement and forgiveness.

The third altar — for which Rashi provides no reason at all — symbolizes that aspect of service which transcends reason: the service of mesirus nefesh.