According to Jewish law,1 if an individual vows to bring a larger animal for a sacrificial offering and instead brings a smaller one, e.g., he brings a calf instead of a cow, he does not fulfill his obligation. Conversely, if he vows to bring a smaller animal and brings a larger one in its stead, then he fulfills his obligation.

How can a person who vows to bring a smaller animal possibly fulfill his vow by bringing a larger one, when the verse specifically states:2 “Keep the pledge that you have vowed to G‑d your L-rd”? If he brings a larger animal, is he “keeping his pledge”?

In terms of man’s spiritual service, this law will be better understood by first examining the general idea of sacrificial offerings, or korbanos:

The word korbanos derives from the Hebrew root karov, to draw close.3 Thus, we find that at the beginning of the Torah portion of Vayikra, the Torah introduces the concept of korbanos with the statement:4 “A man who offers (yakriv) of you an offering to G‑d.” It would seem that the order of the words should be reversed — “A man of you (i.e., from among you,) who offers….”

The Alter Rebbe explains the verse thus:5 “A man who offers,” i.e., in order that a man come closer to G‑d (yakriv, “who offers,” literally means to “draw close”) must bring “of you an offering to G‑d.” That is, he must bring the offering of himself ; he must sacrifice his personal “animal” — the desire for evil that is called the “animal soul” — and thus draw all of himself closer to G‑d.6

Herein lies the difference between korbanos and all other mitzvos. All other commandments are specific in nature, each one connecting a different part of the individual to G‑d. Korbanos, however, are all-encompassing — a person thereby gives himself altogether, and draws himself entirely closer to G‑d.

This comprehensive aspect of korbanos is also embodied in the explanation of the Rambam as to why korbanos are able to bring about atonement:7 While bringing an offering, a person must have his past sins in mind; he will thus realize that the things being done to the animal soul by right should have been done to him. It is only because of G‑d’s mercy that an animal is substituted in his stead.

Accordingly, an offering takes the person’s place because the person is thereby drawing himself entirely closer to G‑d.

This also explains why the section concerning offerings begins with free-will offerings,8 and only then goes on to detail the laws of obligatory offerings. It is because the main purpose of korbanos — to draw oneself closer to G‑d — is better accomplished by bringing offerings out of free will than by bringing them because we are commanded by G‑d to do so.

In light of the above, we can understand the spiritual basis of the statement that “one who vows to bring a smaller animal for an offering and brings a larger one in its stead fulfills his obligation.”

When a Jew vows to bring an offering, he is not so much out to fulfill a vow as he is endeavoring to draw himself closer to G‑d. Thus, the actual performance of the vow is encompassed in the general command to bring an offering, which unites the entire Jew with G‑d.

When a person vows to bring an offering, he is in fact demonstrating his willingness to give himself to G‑d. Thus, his delight in being able to give even more of himself by bringing a larger offering in no way contradicts his vow.

When a person is ready to offer himself entirely to G‑d, then, although he begins “small,” he is assured that he will ultimately attain “greatness” — every fiber of his being will become great, as he will be wholly united with G‑d.

Based on Likkutei Sichos, Vol. XXVII, p. 1-7