This week we are beginning a new book of Torah – the book of Leviticus, called in Hebrew “Vayikra”. The book deals in great detail with the minutiae of esoteric sacrifices and rituals – and of priestly purity, and for this reason it is also known in Rabbinic tradition as Torat Cohanim – the Book of the Priests, but surprisingly the book also contains within it the most accessibly ethical and spiritual texts of the whole bible – in particular it contains the list of behaviours in imitation of God that we call the Holiness Code.
There is a time honoured tradition that when a child was considered ready to begin to study scripture at the age of five, they would begin by studying the book of Leviticus. Many people find this somewhat bizarre – after all, a substantial amount of this book deals with the laws of the sacrificial cults, laws which are terribly complex and hard to follow, and which are also in abeyance since the destruction of the Temple –not something one would expect a five year old to understand and retain. Surely one would expect them to start with the stories in the book of Genesis, which would appeal to children and which benefit from being the very beginning of Torah, but the argument goes that as little children are innocent and pure (tahor) and as the book of Leviticus discusses the sacrifices which by their nature restore spiritual purity (taharah) to the person, then it is appropriate that the pure little children would begin their Jewish education with the topic of purity.
Other commentators point out that unlike the other four books of Moses, Leviticus does not open with subject matter in an historical setting – its main message is about individual and communal responsibility and accountability, and the means whereby we can approach God. The Hebrew word for sacrifice “korban” is derived from the root meaning “to draw near” so the whole of the ritual system defined and described in Leviticus is all about bringing us closer to God.
So the book which is physically at the centre of Torah is also spiritually at the centre – teaching that which is at the heart of Judaism – to recognise and to act on the need to come closer to God. Each of us is obliged to do this, from the High Priest and the leadership through to what the bible calls the cutters of wood and the drawers of water, and each of us, wherever we are in the pecking order, brings our own personal daily sacrifice.
Small children traditionally learn to read and study Vayikra, because in its mix of the ritual and the ethical, it embodies the timeless identity of being a Jew. It is about doing, about how we behave towards God, and how we behave towards our fellow human beings. It may read like a manual for priests, but look a little deeper, and you will recognise that a real human need is being addressed, a need which has not changed in the intervening generations, even though our way of dealing with it may have altered.