The Torah portion of Lech Lecha informs us of the three altars that Avraham built:

a) “He built there an altar to G‑d, Who revealed Himself to him;”1

b) “He built there an altar to G‑d, and called in G‑d’s Name;”2

c) “He built there an altar to G‑d.”3

Rashi in his commentary explains that Avraham built the first altar “in gratitude to G‑d for His tidings about progeny and the land of Israel.”

He built the second altar, says Rashi , as a result of “his prophecy that his descendants would sin in that particular place; he therefore prayed for them [that they be forgiven].”

However, no explanation is offered by Rashi as to why Avraham built the third altar. Why doesn’t he give a reason, particularly as the Midrash4 does?

There is a well-known saying of our Sages:5 “All that transpired with the Patriarchs serves as a sign to their progeny.” This means that these events not only serve as guideposts for the conduct of the Jewish people, but in addition pave the way and provide moral strength, so that we will be able to conduct ourselves in the selfsame manner.

The altars built by Avraham thus gave the Jewish people the strength that enabled them to succeed in bringing offerings on the altars of the Mishkan and Beis HaMikdash.

Our Rabbis inform us6 that the world receives its sustenance in the merit of offerings. Additionally, offerings nullify harsh decrees, and atone for sins. Moreover, they cause G‑d to love the Jewish people to an even greater degree.

The term “service” applies particularly to offerings,7 for they represent and express the general aspect of divine service. Thus, just as there are three aspects to offerings, there are three aspects to spiritual service:

The first aspect is that of Torah and mitzvos, which act as “sustenance”— sustaining the Jewish body and soul. For Torah is a Jew’s “life,” and concerning mitzvos the verse states:8 “man shall perform them so that he may live.” This is similar to the first aspect of offerings, that of providing sustenance.

A higher level is the spiritual service of repentance; even when man has strayed from the path of life, he can rectify his misdeeds through repentance. This is similar to the second aspect of offerings — providing forgiveness and atonement.

The most complete manner of spiritual service, however, finds expression when a person displays mesirus nefesh , total self-sacrifice. While engaging in this degree of service, one does not think of any spiritual or material reward, but serves entirely for the sake of G‑d’s glory.

This wholly selfless manner of service causes one to become even more beloved by G‑d — similar to the third and most lofty aspect of offerings — that of “causing G‑d to love the Jewish people to an even greater degree.”

Since “all that transpired with the Patriarchs serves as a sign to their progeny,” we understand that Avraham’s building of three altars corresponded to the service of the Jewish people, not only during the time when offerings were actually brought, but throughout time:

The first altar was built by Avraham “in gratitude to G‑d for His tidings about progeny and the land of Israel” — taking care of the Jewish people’s physical and spiritual needs, the aspect of “sustenance.”

The second altar, where he prayed that G‑d forgive the Jewish people, corresponds to the second level of offerings and spiritual service — that of forgiveness and atonement.

Rashi , however, does not give a reason why Avraham built the third altar, for this altar had no “reason” — it was built solely for the purpose of building an altar to G‑d, entirely for His glory.

This selfless manner of building, like the third and loftiest aspect of offerings and spiritual service, cause the Jewish people to become ever more beloved by G‑d.

Based on Likkutei Sichos , Vol. XXX, pp. 36-41.