The Book of Vayikra focuses to a significant degree on the various sacrifices (korbanos) (1) that were to be given in the Tabernacle (Mishkan), and later the Temple (Beis HaMikdash). A number of these korbanos are known as korbanos nedava (2) (gift offerings). They are not obligatory; if a person is aroused to give such an offering, then he fulfills a mitvzah and to do so is considered highly praiseworthy.
The Steipler Gaon, Rabbi Yaakov Yisrael Kanievsky asks a penetrating question about the nature of these gift offerings.(3) Most mitzvos are obligatory because God's wisdom decreed that a Jew must fulfill them, thus they are an essential aspect of one's Divine Service. Gift offerings are not obligatory, implying that they are not essential to a Jew's service. However, on the other hand, offering such sacrifices is considered to be a mitzvah, implying that there is some kind of benefit in their offering and that they do have a place in one's Divine Service. How can we understand the nature of this kind of mitzvah?
The Steipler answers this by first addressing another important question in Jewish thought. One of the most fundamental mitzvahs is the mitzvah to love God. This obligates a Jew to direct his emotions in such a way that he develops a strong love of God. How can the Torah obligate one to have a particular emotion - surely that is beyond a person's control? To answer this problem, the Steipler brings the principle of the Mesillas Yesharim (Path of the Just), with regard to the trait of zealousness.(4) He writes that just as internal inspiration brings about external actions, so too, external actions can arouse one's inner feelings. Thus, acting in a certain manner can bring about desired emotions.
The Steipler writes that this principle applies very strongly to the mitzvah of Loving God. We know that an internal love brings one to actions reflecting his love for God and his willingness to ignore his own desires for the sake of God's honor. So too, performing voluntary actions that involve placing God's will before one's own desires, will bring a person to an increased love of God.
With this principle, the Steipler explains the nature of gift offerings. These sacrifices provide one with a great opportunity to get close to God by placing God before himself: He forgoes his own needs by exerting a considerable amount of time, effort and money, in order to bring an animal or food offering to the Temple and offer it up to God. Showing such selflessness on behalf of God is a highly effective way of arousing one's love of Him. This explains why bringing a gift offering is such a praiseworthy act. However, if the Torah obligated every Jew to bring such sacrifices, then their whole purpose would be lost - when one is obligated to give of himself to another, he does not develop feelings of love, rather he feels that he is paying a debt that he owes. Thus, the Torah gives each Jew the opportunity to arouse himself to fulfill an action that will surely increase his love for God by making gift offerings 'optional'. Yet at the same time, offering such sacrifices is considered a great mitzvah because of its effectiveness in bringing about love of God.
The Steipler writes that this principle is not limited to sacrifices; a person can choose any specific area where he desires to exert an extra amount of effort that goes beyond what is required by law. By 'willingly' giving of himself in one area he can bring himself to an increased love of God. This idea is demonstrated by the following story told over by Rav Yissachar Frand: He was once given a ride by a seemingly ordinary Jew. In the course of the conversation it emerged that this Jew gave particular emphasis to the mitzvah of prayer. He had not missed praying in a minyan (quorum of ten men) for several years. This man chose one area in which to put in that extra effort and self-sacrifice and in this way he was surely able to arouse in himself an increased love for God.
We learn from the principle of the Steipler Gaon that a key method of bringing oneself closer to God is by doing actions that are not considered obligatory according to the Torah but that are certainly praiseworthy.
1. A korban is normally translated into 'sacrifice' - this is not an accurate translation, in that the root of the word, korban is karev, which means 'come close' the essence of a korban is an act of coming close to God, thus when a Jew gives a korban he does not focus on the 'sacrifice' that he is making by offering an animal to God, rather on the closeness to God that he is gaining.
2. Such as Olos, Shelamim and Menachos.
3. Birchas Peretz, Parshas Vayikra.
4. Mesillas Yesharim, Ch.7.