A considerable portion of the Book of Vayikra is devoted to the various types of sacrifices. There are many differences between the sacrifices brought on different occasions, but what is common to all is the idea that the animals are brought for the explicit purpose of offering them as whatever offering they are meant to be, to Hashem. Is this concept of “lishma” (“for its own sake”) in the Temple and its service identical to the halakhic principle that “mitzvot require intent (kavanah)”? Or is there perhaps a special reason for the requirement of “lishma” that applies specifically to the sacrifices?
In order to answer this question we must first understand the actual purpose of the requirement of “lishma”. It would seem that our aim is to create a new reality for the object before us, naming it anew in light of a new condition that did not exist previously. Let us consider, for example, a ‘get’ (religious document of divorce). A ‘get’ is a document that includes the names of the man and woman involved and the name of the city where they live, but without the “lishma” which we derive from the Torah’s command, “and he shall write for her…”, which our Sages understand as meaning “for the sake of the man and for the sake of the woman” – it can never be considered a ‘get’; it will forever remain a document with names, with no other significance. In other words, the “lishma” creates an essential definition that did not previously exist.
In light of this definition it would seem difficult to maintain that this “lishma” is the same as the principle according to which “mitzvot require intent”. Intent (kavanah) does not operate on the same level as “lishma”: intent means concentrating on the act of the mitzvah itself. The sanctity of tefillin exists even if the person who dons them does not have proper intent; it is he personally who has a halakhic problem if he was not concentrating when he put them on. Intent does not create a new reality for the object; it simply creates a connection between the person and the mitzvah.
In accordance with this distinction it would seem that the requirement of “lishma” when it comes to sacrifices has an aspect that is unique to it. Without “lishma”, the sacrificial animals remain at their bestial level, with no essential change in status. A person who sins and brings a sin offering, but is not actually motivated by the intention to offer this animal as a sin offering – such a person lacks something fundamental in his service, for no new reality has been conferred on the animal. Support for this conclusion may be found in the first mishna of Massekhet Zevahim, which teaches that “all sacrifices that are offered not for their own sake are acceptable, but their owners do not thereby fulfill their obligation.” In other words, when a person brings the animal to the Temple, the animal may be considered a “future sacrifice”, but its status and purpose remain contingent; they are not finally resolved until the owner’s “lishma” – his intention to hereby fulfill his obligation and offer the relevant sacrifice – defines their destiny. Without this definition the animal is acceptable as a sacrifice, but not as the sacrifice that the owner was meant to bring.
Likewise, when we recite the daily blessings over the Torah we pray that we may be among those who “learn Your Torah for its own sake”. In light of our understanding of the concept of “lishma”, it seems that in our Torah study, too, we are required to invest the words of the living God with purpose and destiny in order to perpetuate Torah study and Torah sanctity in each and every generation.