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Rabbi Yosi HaGelili (Yoma 36) states that a korban olah is brought for the sin of not giving the poor people from your grain, which one is obligated to do. Rabbi Akiva disagrees and holds that a korban olah is brought to atone for transgressing a positive commandment. Chazal say that an olah is a doron – a present to Hashem. The Seforim say that an olah shows a tremendous amount of love between the person and Hashem. The Ramban writes that when one brings a chatas or an asham, he should feel as if he is bringing himself as a sacrifice, for in truth, that is what he deserves. By an olah, it is as if he is giving himself to Hashem out of love.
How do we reconcile an olah being a present and a sign of love with the fact that Chazal say it is brought for transgressing certain sins?
The Aruch L’neir (Makkos 17b) explains the Ritva. The Gemora contrasts a chatas and asham that is coming for atonement and an olah is not. The Ritva asks from the Gemora in Yoma and Zevachim that it does provide forgiveness for some sins, and he answers that when one brings an olah as a donation, it atones for those sins.
Reb Chaim HaQoton elaborates: Rashi, quoting the Midrash, explains that an olah sacrifice is an atonement for one who violates a positive commandment or for one who violates a negative commandment and fails to perform the positive commandment that is supposed to rectify the negative commandment. Rashi explains, in a point further explained by Nachmanides and Rabbi Yaakov Ettlinger, that one is never obligated to bring a olah as an atonement, rather, if one does, he attains his atonement.
Tosfos write that after bringing an olah one’s atonement is “floating. Rabbi Meir Lublin explains that the Tosafists mean that an olah offering only atones for lenient sins, not for the more strict and severe sins.
Rabbi Shlomo Luria explains that the atonement is “floating” inasmuch as the atonement does not occur automatically when one offers an olah sacrifice, rather one must first perform teshuvah (repentance) and return to God before the offering of the sacrifice will complete its powers of atonement.
His words echo that of Rabbi Yaakov ben Asher who explains that the olah only serves as atonement for failing to perform a positive commandment or violating a negative commandment which is to be repaired by a positive commandment, if one repents from one’s sin.
Other Tosafists write that the olah offers an atonement for one who sinned and never knew of his sin. According to this explanation, obviously one cannot be obligate to being an olah for such a sin, because if he never knew about his sin, how can he be obliged to offer a sacrifice to atone for it? Rather, if one brought an olah offering, then it atones for sins unbeknown to him, but if he did not bring one, he is not required to do so. Another Midrash says that an olah is an atonement for one who thinks about sinning and thus has sinned with his intellect, not for one who violates a positive commandment.