Parashat Vayikra begins by outlining the various types of ola sacrifices – animal sacrifices which were entirely burnt upon the altar (as opposed to sacrifices that were partially eaten). One who wished to bring an ola had the option of bringing either a bull, a sheep or goat, or a bird.
A number of commentators noted a subtle distinction between the Torah’s introduction of the bird ola and its introductions of the other ola sacrifices. In introducing the others, the Torah simply writes, “If his burnt-offering is from the herd,” or “If his burnt-offering is from the flock of sheep” (1:3,10). In reference to the bird sacrifice, however, the Torah writes, “Ve-im min ha-of ola korbano le-Hashem” – “And if his burnt-offering to the Lord is from the birds” (1:14). Curiously, in this context the Torah emphasizes that the sacrifice is offered “to the Lord,” despite this quite obviously being the case whenever one offers any ola sacrifice.
A number of different explanations have been offered for this nuance. Or Ha-chayim cites the Gemara’s ruling in Masekhet Kiddushin (24) that bird offerings are unique in that birds with physical defects and deformities are acceptable as sacrifices. When it comes to all other animal sacrifices, an animal with a physical blemish is disqualified as an offering, and the Torah strictly forbids sacrificing such an animal. Birds, however, are not subject to these restrictions. As such, one might have assumed that a bird offering is of a lesser stature of sanctity or importance, as reflected by the more lenient standards that apply to it. For this reason, the Torah found it necessary to emphasize that even this sacrifice is offered “le-Hashem” – as an offering to the Almighty, and has the same stature as other burnt-offerings.
Panim Yafot offers a different suggestion, explaining that the bird ola differs from other sacrifices in that the kohanim do not receive anything at all from the offering. Animal ola sacrifices are skinned after slaughtering, before the animal is placed on the altar, and the kohanim are given the skins for them to use. When a bird sacrifice is offered, however, the entire bird is burned, with nothing going to the kohanim. One might have therefore thought that a bird ola is less significant a sacrifice, given that nobody receives any benefit whatsoever from the animal. The Torah dispels this misconception by emphasizing that even this sacrifice is “le-Hashem,” a meaningful and lovingly accepted offering to God.
The Panim Yafot’s explanation perhaps reminds us that mitzvot are valuable even if when we cannot discern tangible benefits. The Torah emphasizes that although the bird offering does not appear to provide practical benefit to anybody, it is nevertheless a precious offering cherished by the Almighty. If we perform a mitzva with sincerity and in compliance with Torah law, then we have done a precious act regardless of whether or not we can point to any tangible positive effect.