The Sidra of Vayikra is about sacrifice: The offerings that were made in the Sanctuary, and the procedure that surrounded them. What does it mean to us today, when there is no Temple? Two Temples were destroyed. But many millions were not, and could not be. These are the temples which every Jew possesses within himself, the holy place of the soul where his worship of G‑d takes place. Judaism is invulnerable, because it has as many Sanctuaries as there are Jews. But what is the service of this inner sanctum? The answer lies in this week’s Sidra, where every instruction has a double significance: Firstly, to guide the priests in their service, and secondly, to guide us in ours. The private Sanctuary of the present is a precise counterpart of the public Sanctuary of the past. The Rebbe takes us through the act of sacrifice, translating the priestly procedure into terms of immediate bearing on our spiritual life. It is a classic example of the power of Chassidut to transform our understanding of neglected parts of the Torah into exact and striking pictures of the path of religious experience.

1. “An Offering of You”

At the beginning of the Sidra of Vayikra (the Sidra about the sacrifices), the Torah says, “If any man brings an offering of you to the L-rd.” At first glance we would suppose that the phrase “of you” refers to “any man,” thus: “If any man of you brings an offering….” But the order of words in the Torah rules this out. The Torah is precise in every detail. An apparently misplaced word has great significance. The sentence must read, “If any man brings an offering of you…,” and the implication is that the sacrifice must be of yourself. What does this mean?

This well-known Chassidic interpretation understands the phrase to be a commentary on the whole nature of sacrifice. When G‑d commanded the Israelites to build Him a Sanctuary. He said: “And they shall make Me a Sanctuary and I will dwell in them.” It was not simply in it that He would dwell, but in every Jew. Each Jew had, as it were, a Sanctuary within himself. And every act, every facet of the physical Sanctuary, had its counterpart in the sanctuary of the soul.

So there is an inward act of sacrifice in the life of the Jew that precisely mirrors the outward act that took place in the Sanctuary. Even that outward act—though it involved the sacrifice of a physical animal—was essentially a spiritual one. This is why it needed the participation of the priests (kohanim) and the accompaniment of the songs of the Levites. The Zohar1 says that “the Cohanim in their silent service and their desire drew (G‑d’s presence) downwards and the Levites in their songs and praises drew (man’s soul and his sacrifice) upwards.” The physical sacrifice was thus a spiritual encounter.

So, indeed more so, is the inward act of sacrifice. And this is the meaning of “If any man brings an offering of you….” “Offering” in Hebrew means “drawing near.”2 And when a Jew wishes to draw near to G‑d he must make a sacrifice to G‑d of his very self. The offering must be “of you.” It is the “you” that is the sacrifice.

2. The Animal

The sentence continues: “…You shall bring your offering from the cattle, the herd and the flock.”

Thus there are two sacrifices in the sanctuary of the soul. The first is “of you,” of yourself, your “G‑dly soul.” The second is “from the cattle,” from the “animal soul” which constitutes all physical desires, all instincts which a man has in virtue of having a body and being part of the natural world. It is this second offering which is the ultimate aim of sacrifice: The sanctification and redirection of the “animal” in man.

That this is the aim is suggested in the verse itself, and what follows. The offering “of you” is described as being made “to the L-rd.” But in the next verse it says that the offering “of the herd” shall be “before the L-rd,” meaning that it will reach a higher level than “the L-rd,”3 the four-lettered name of G‑d. It is written,4 “There is much increase by the strength of the ox.” When the animal in man is harnessed in the service of G‑d it has the power to take him closer to G‑d than his G‑dly soul alone could reach.

Bringing the “you,” the G‑dly soul, as a sacrifice brings man only “to the L-rd,” to the level signified by the four-lettered name. This is in itself a supernatural experience, but not yet an experience of G‑d as He is in Himself, beyond time and change. Whereas the sanctification of the “animal soul” brings an experience of G‑d in His absolute transcendence: “When the ‘other side’ (the natural instincts) is subdued, the glory of the Holy One, blessed be He, is revealed throughout all worlds.”5

3. The Search

When an animal was to be sacrificed on the altar, the first thing that had to be done was to see that it was whole, perfect, without blemish. Only then could it be offered. So it is in the “drawing near” of man. The “animal” within himself must be without blemish before it can be sacrificed. The first step is self-examination. He must search the recesses of his soul for faults—rifts in the unity of his being. And having found them, he must set them right.

The search must be sincere, not done out of a mechanical sense of duty. For his whole spiritual integrity depends on it. Once he realizes what is at stake, he will not cover his faults in self-deception, or leave them to fester, uncured.

4. The Pressure of the Past

When a man begins this process of self-searching in earnest, it can often happen that even though he is not currently guilty of any sin, there rise to the surface of his memory all the failings and indiscretions of his past, even of his childhood,6 until he can say, “My sin is continually before me.”7 They persist because they have not been completely set right.

Had they been rectified by his subsequent service they would have been effaced, and replaced by great enthusiasm in Divine Service. For when a man has been through the “dry land of the shadow of death” which comes upon him in the moment of separation from G‑d through sin, his desire to be reunited with G‑d flares into the fervor of “repentance through great love” which turns “intentional sins into merits.”8

But this self-examination tells him that it is not so with him. His sins remain as sins in his memory. He has not passed through the transforming fire of love. Sin breeds sin in its chain,9 and even now he sometimes feels the pressure of wayward desires.

It is not as if his repentance for the past needs only a final touch to complete it, but rather as if it never succeeded in breaking down the barrier between himself and G‑d10 that his past acts had created.

But this may give him pause. He is coming in front of G‑d in an act of sacrifice, of “drawing near” with all his being, to be drawn into the Divine fire which is to carry him upwards to the essence of G‑d.11 And he may say: What am I to be worthy of the act? I am imperfect. I am full of faults. The thing is beyond me!

Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak of Lubavitch answered:12 the sacrifice is not only of “you”; it depends on “you.” It is within the scope of every Jew, whatever his present and whatever his past. So that every Jew has the right to ask himself,13 “When will my acts be like the acts of my fathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob?”

5. The Fire

Once the animal has been examined, and found to be without blemish, it must be killed. That is, one does not destroy its body, merely takes away its life. Then it is offered on the altar, where it is consumed (in some cases, only the fat, in others the whole animal) by fire sent from above by G‑d.

This is the procedure for physical sacrifices in the Sanctuary, and it applies also to the inward sacrifice within the Jewish personality.

After one has set right the faults or blemishes in one’s way of life, the “animal” must be killed. The life must be taken from one’s instinctual, physical drives. Their energy must be redirected. The “body,” that is, the physical acts, remain. But their motive is now wholly spiritual, to give strength to the life of Divine Service. Thus in the Talmud,14 Rava said: “Wine and odorous spices made me wise.” To do this is to arrive at the stage of “In all your ways, know Him,”15 where every act is for the sake of holiness, until every act becomes itself holy. This is the case, for example, on Shabbat when eating and drinking are not simply a means to the sanctification of the day, but are themselves commanded as part of that sanctity; physical wool in Tzitzit; physical leather in Tefillin; and so can every act be sanctified to this degree.

Then comes the moment of “drawing near.” The body, the “animal soul” are drawn into the fire of the soul, the fire that is the love of G‑d: “Its flames are flames of fire, the flame of G‑d.”16 The love that the Rabbis say17 is like “the fire of heaven” turns the animal force into molten energy that is reshaped as love of G‑d.

“And you shall love the L-rd your G‑d with all your heart.” The Rabbis asked,18 what is “with all your heart?” And they answered, “with your two inclinations.” When the power and passion of natural man is harnessed to the love of G‑d of spiritual man, the fire within the Jew merges with the answering fire of heaven, and man and G‑d “draw near.”

(Source: Likkutei Sichot, Vol. I pp. 205-208)