The Korban Chatas, Sin-offering, is brought when one inadvertently commits a transgression for which the punishment is, when intentional, either kares, Heavenly excision, or the death penalty [any of the four forms of capital punishment/execution]. A person brings a Korban Olah for a sin which he committed with his mind, in which he had improper, sinful thoughts. Interestingly, when one performs a sin with his hand, his punishment is chatas, which is partially eaten by the owners and Kohanim. In contrast, when one commits a sin with his mind, he must bring a korban which is completely burnt. Why is this?
Simply, I would suggest that a sin which one commits with his mind permeates his entire body, tainting everything, because the mind determines what the body does. Ramban observes that the same hand that writes a Sefer Torah can commit murder. Is the hand to blame? No! It is the mind that determines and defines the actions of the hand. On the other hand, when hands/actions commit a sin, it is only the hands that have committed the sinful act. It does not affect the other organs of the body. Thus, a Korban Olah which atones for the sins of the mind is wholly burnt, and a Korban Chatas which atones for actions, is partially eaten by both owner and Kohen.
The Nesivos Chaim (cited in Nifle’osecha Asichah) explains that the purpose of a korban is to teach its donor what it is that Hashem wants/expects of us and in what manner a Jew should carry out his daily endeavor. It is unrealistic to ask a person that all of his activities should be totally untainted of any physical/material prejudices and interests. We are human, and, as such, we are prone to human tendencies. We cannot expect a person to execute a mitzvah and not derive any physical pleasure or purpose thereby. It is what it is. In the realm of thought, however, we may expect that one’s mind be completely in sync with his actions. Upon davening (for example), one should maintain kavanah, proper intention, focus and devotion. One has no excuse for a “wandering” mind. Therefore, the Torah distinguishes between thought and action with regard to its various korbanos.
In his inimitable manner, Horav Yitzchak Zilberstein, Shlita relates an inspiring story which underscores the importance of proper thought, kavanah, when one is engaged in a davar she’b’kedushah, holy endeavor. Horav David Segal HaLevi, zl, authored the Turei Zahav commentary to the Shulchan Aruch. The Taz (as he is reverently known) is one of Klal Yisrael’s premier poskim, halachic arbiters. In the Pincas, notebook, of the Chevra Kaddisha, Jewish Sacred/Burial Society, of the city of Lvov, Poland, it is noted that the Taz was known to wear an old, torn Tallis. It was obvious from the color of the Tallis and the pattern of its tatters that he had worn it for quite some time. When it became known that the man who represented the city’s spiritual centerpiece, a man known throughout the entire Torah world for his brilliance and erudition, was attired in an old Tallis, the women of the community assembled and donated a brand new white Tallis made of the finest wool, as befits a Torah scholar of the stature of the Taz. They brought the gift to him. He opened up the package and saw the impressive Tallis which they had commissioned for him. He remarked, “Thank you. My deepest gratitude to you for the thought. However, I refuse to wear a new Tallis. I require my old, torn Tallis to serve as a testament on my behalf in Heaven Above that I never had any extraneous thoughts during Shemoneh Esrai.” His mind was always focused on the words, their meaning and implications. Can we make such a statement?
Indeed, Rav Zilberstein supplements the story (Chashukei Chemed Bechoros 37a) with the following observation: The Taz was a saintly angel, an unparalleled tzaddik, about whom his Tallis could attest such positive testimony. Those of us who are unable to make such a statement, whose Tallis cannot (for obvious reasons) vouch to our positive, appropriate focus during Shemoneh Esrai, should repair and clean the Tallis that we wear, so that we should at least be attired in a clean Tallis when davening to Hashem.
Perhaps this might be a time to mention that this applies to all devarim she’b’kedushah, sacred objects: Tallis; Tefillin; the clothing we wear to shul, which indicates the esteem in which we hold the shul, the congregation, the Shabbos. Certainly, to find the money to purchase an expensive wardrobe, but continuing to wear an old Tallis that could use a cleaning, reflects misplaced values and imperiousness that borders on disdain for a mitzvah.