"He shall press his hands on the head of the burnt offering, and it shall then be accepted as an atonement for him." (Lev. 1:4)

People would be like angels, if not for the occasional transgression. Humankind would be close to G‑d, with no barrier intervening. Committing sins creates such a barrier and causes spiritually negative forces to be released into our world. This in turn makes necessary a rapprochement between man and G‑d in order to break down the man made barriers. The function of animal sacrifice is to re-establish the closeness with G‑d coupled with repentance that will neutralize the spiritually negative forces created through sin. These forces will be destroyed through penitence, i.e. the placing of the sinner's hands on the sacrificial animal and the slaughtering of the animal. There must also not be an interval of time between the act of confession and the slaughtering that might weaken the power of the confession. No time must be allowed to enable the owner to indulge in unworthy thought.

Thought emanates from the soul, whereas deeds emanate from the body…

The fire on the Altar destroys the spiritually negative forces created by the sin for which atonement is sought. The presence of heavenly fire also is the guarantee that repentance has been accepted by G‑d. Besides, in order to destroy man-made spiritually negative forces, something stronger is required than what man can create himself; hence the Heavenly Fire. We know that thought emanates from the soul, whereas deeds emanate from the body. Intentional sin then is a combined activity of soul and body. The negative forces that can be created by such combined forces are too strong to be neutralized merely by an animal sacrifice.

Just as a sane man can hardly be compared to an ox, goat, or sheep, so the sacrifice (i.e. death of an animal) is hardly likely to generate feelings of humility and repentance in a person who committed the transgression intentionally. However, a person who at the time of the transgression was unaware that he was committing an offence, will be shocked into humility, remorse, etc. when he sees that in order to atone for it an animal will lose its life as his scapegoat.

[Translation and commentary by Eliyahu Munk.]