What book would you use to begin teaching Judaism to a child? According to tradition, it is none other than “Leviticus.” This middle book of our Pentateuch, Vayikra, is known as the Torat Kohanim, the Torah of the kohanim or priests, and of the Levites from which we get the English name of the book, Leviticus. The Levites were the priests’ assistants from the tribe of Levi (as in the popular brand of jeans, “Levis,” invented by a Jewish peddler, Levi Strauss, for the prospectors of the California Gold Rush).
“Said Rav Assi: Why do young children begin the study of Torah with the book of Leviticus, and not with Genesis? Surely it is because young children are pure, and the sacrifices korbanot are pure; so let the pure come and engage in the study of the pure” (Leviticus Rabba 7).
My Jewish education as a young child at a Reform temple in Toronto also began with Leviticus and I’ve always had a perplexing relationship ever since. I remember starting religious school with the presentation of a JPS Tanach. The teacher stated that the curriculum for the entire year would be the book of Leviticus. As we meandered through the quagmire of the sacrificial cult, I got lost in the plethora of disgusting details.
Several years later, I experienced deja vu when my bar mitzvah portion, Emor (Leviticus 21:1 – 24:23), was assigned, also from the book of Leviticus. I begged my tutor for the context of my portion and again got lost in the restrictions related to priests’ sexuality and marriage.
Fast forward to my first year in Israel for rabbinical school at HUC-JIR when my freshman sermon date was chosen and I was assigned this week’s portion, Vayikra. When I approached my rabbinic advisor for a clue as to where to start my homiletic journey, he pointed out the first word with its unique orthography of VAYIKRa.
The opening word of Leviticus is Vayikra is spelled with a little aleph. There are only nine small letters in the Torah and out of 27,057 alephs in the Torah and only this one is written small! Why?
The 19th century Italian Bible commentator, Samuel Luzzato, commented about the economic space saving technique when all the words ran together to save room on costly parchment. This helps explain the final forms of some of the Hebrew letters in order to determine when a word ends and another begins. The Sages suggest a homiletic explanation that this small aleph refers to the humility of Moses of whom the Torah says, “Now Moses was very meek (ענו), above all the people which were upon the face of the earth” (Numbers 12:3).
Vayikra is the only book of the Torah that contains no history or stories, only laws and rituals, mostly about sacrifices, korbanot.
Our Sages opined many reasons for the sacrifices. The Rambam, the great 12th century philosopher, saw the sacrifices as a historical or pragmatic concession to customs of the times, as a weapon against rampant idolatry and child sacrifice. Maimonides radically proposed that the cult was only relevant in ancient times. This approach parallels the omission of liturgical references to restoration of the sacrifices in Reform liturgy.
The Ramban the 13th century commentator and mystic, saw the sacrifices as a ritual valuable in itself to promote communion with Deity. The Hebrew word korban, comes from the root karov, to draw near. Sacrifices were originally intended for us to draw near to Diety. Nachmonides taught that the blood represented the soul and therefore, sacrifices are the coming together of body and soul in service to God.
Whether a vehicle for prayer or historical concession, sacrifices were universally condemned by the prophets as we read in Isaiah traditionally read by all streams of Judaism on Yom Kippur morning for the haftara:
“What need have I of all your sacrifices?” Says the Eternal. “I am sated with burnt offerings of rams, And suet of fatlings, And blood of bulls; And I have no delight in lambs and goats (Isaiah 1:11-14). Instead of means to an end, the sacrifices degenerated into an end in themselves, from rite to rote.
After the fall of the second temple in 70 CE, prayer became the offering of our hearts and not of our flocks. Our tables became the metaphoric temple of old with ritual washing and blessings and salt on our food evoking the sacrifices of Leviticus.
The structure of the first word of Vayikra hints at the potential pitfall of the sacrifices. With the small aleph the text reads Vayikra, “God called out”; without the aleph we have Vayikar, “it happened.”
As we begin, Vayikra, may our pure learning, prayer and sacred service call out and not merely happen as we make sacrifices for the good of all.