The Torah tells us that “most holy” things all are either objects in the Temple, or offerings.
This is a brief observation, but perhaps an important one: in understanding what constitutes holiness, it can be helpful to ask what the Torah considers the ultimate in the holy. And while Torah tells us that Shabbos is holy, and that the burning bush was holy, they are not kodesh kodashim, most holy.
Shabbos is holy because that first seventh-day G-d blessed an otherwise-normal unit of time. And the burning bush was the combination of the lowly bush and divine fire. So we see that it is holy when something physical and mundane is combined with a spiritual energy.
But while the combination may make something holy –it is not most holy. What makes other things at a greater level of holiness than the divine declaration of Shabbos?
The Torah tells us of many things that are “most holy”, including numerous creations and designations: the place of the Aron, the perfume, the atonement offerings, and the firstborn. All of these require an act of mankind, at the least a declaration, and at the most, a full sacrifice. For all their variety, the lesson is consistent: The Torah never tells us about something that G-d makes that is most holy! Instead, the highest level of holiness is something that we, and not G-d, create!
And even within the “most holy” category, the Torah plays favorites: the guilt offering, the sin offering, and the meal offering are called “most holy” more than anything else in the entire Torah. What makes these specific items worthy of such attention?
I would argue that the difference is that these are all voluntary offerings, in the sense that for someone to bring such an offering, they have to be taking the initiative. A person who brings a sin offering is looking for an opportunity to bring an offering, above and beyond supporting the routine “housekeeping” offerings in the Temple. When one of those offerings is brought, it is as a result of the exercise of free will: we choose to do an action, and that choice gives the act more potency.
But there is more than this. While Shabbos and the burning bush were combinations of heaven and earth, physical and spiritual, they were formed in that way. G-d created the combination as a set piece, not by recombining the two opposite worlds.
But a sacrifice, by contrast, is not a static thing, but a dynamic event. It is not merely the fact of two united elements; it is the elevation of the physical toward the spiritual.
Consider the sacrifices: the guilt and sin offerings involved an animal. When the animal is sacrificed, the nefesh of the animal is released upward in fire. An animal is given an aliyah, a promotion, toward the divine. This is precisely what we want our own souls to do – to elevate toward Hashem. And the flesh becomes most holy – to be eaten by the priests. The resulting product, the flesh of the animal itself became “most holy” – and it was to be eaten by the priests, elevating them in turn. Like kosher food, whose purpose is to allow us to elevate our bodies through consuming the kosher animal, so, too, the sacrifices to G-d create a foodstuff that is most holy, elevating the priests as they consume the meat.
Animals, of course, have spirits, and so this theme is consistent between the sin and guilt offerings. But the meal offering is of flour and oil, not of an animal! Why is it also repeatedly identified as being “most holy”?
The answer is that the meal offering was brought by those who could not afford to purchase an animal. For such a person, even financing the meal offering was a substantial investment (and sacrifice) of their own meager possessions. The reason the Torah says “And when any will offer a meal offering to the Lord,”(Lev. 2:1) the Hebrew word used for “any” is nefesh or spirit. The Talmud tells us that a meal offering was not the spirit of the animal, but represented the spirit of the person making the offering itself! Which might explain why the meal offering is given pride of place when the Torah lists the offerings:
This shall be yours of the most holy things, reserved from the fire; every offering of theirs, every meal offering of theirs and every sin offering of theirs, and every guilt offering of theirs, which they shall render to me, shall be most holy for you and for your sons. (Num: 18:9)
It is the meal offering that comes first, because the person bringing the offerings put more of their spirit into their sacrifice – and the offering is meant to elevate people most of all: the offering is a human proxy.
The Torah’s words are telling us that G-d values mankind’s contributions to this world above His own. And among all of these contributions, it is when we actively choose to find ways to elevate the physical into the spiritual plane, that we are fulfilling the purpose of our existence in this world: G-d wants us to be holy, and the greatest holiness is achieved when we serve G-d by connecting the disparate worlds that He formed in the beginning of creation.