Vayikra – Why Is it Stuck in the Middle?

The book of Yayikra marks a departure from the narrative flow of the Torah through its first two books. The conclusion of the book of Shemot, describing the divine cloud hovering over the newly-constructed Sanctuary, looks forward towards the journey to the Land of Israel in Bemidbar: “And when the cloud went up from above the Mishkan, the children of Israel would journey, for all their journeys… For the cloud of Hashem was upon the Mishkan during the day, and fire was there at night, before the eyes of the children of Israel in all their journeys.” However, before commencing on this journey, the Torah interposes the book of Vayikra, which serves as a non-narrative interlude between the end of Shemot and the beginning of Bemidbar. What is the point of this interlude?

Learning How to Relate to the Divine Presence

The key to answering this question is provided in the very first verse of Vayikra, which diverges from the formula “Hashem spoke to Moshe, saying…”, which introduces virtually all legal sections of the Torah, by adding a unique preliminary detail: “[He] called to Moshe…” The implicit “He” of this verse refers back to the Divine Presence described at the end of Shemot, which also clarifies the need for this unique divine call: “Scripture says here “[He] called to Moshe and Hashem spoke to him”, unlike other passages, because Moshe was unable to enter the Tent of Meeting (see Shemot 40:35) in order to approach a place where God is present (based on Shemot 20:21) except through being called…” (Ramban). Ramban, in his introduction to Vayikra, draws the logical conclusion from this opening verse: the purpose of the book of Vayikra is to teach the Israelites how to relate to the divine Presence which has just descended into the midst of their encampment. To make this point clearer and more meaningful I would suggest a human analogy, based on Hazal’s depiction of the construction of the Sanctuary as a wedding ceremony between God and Israel (end of tractate Taanit): Vayikra is like a honeymoon – before embarking on the shared struggles of everyday life (the journey to the land of Israel) the couple (God and Israel) take time off to invest in cementing their relationship, learning what it means to dwell together at close quarters.

TabernacleThis understanding of the meaning of the book of Vayikra would seem to correspond readily to the last section of the book (starting with chapters 18-19), which detail how Israel is to sanctify their everyday life (“Be holy, for I am holy” – 19:2), as well as maintaining sanctified times (shabbat and festivals – chapter 23; shemitta and yovel – chapter 25) and a sanctified land (chapters 25-27). However, it is difficult to see, at first blush, how the blood and gore of sacrifices, which open our book, serve as a proper “honeymoon” topic for the Israelites and God.

Two models for understanding this are proposed by the commentators at the beginning of the book: (a) Ramban, in his introduction to Vayikra, presents the common understanding of sacrifices as expiation of sin: “sacrifices atone for the people, hence iniquities will not cause the departure of the Shekhinah”; (b) Noting the literal meaning of korban, to draw near, Rabbis S.R.Hirsch and R. David Zvi Hoffman, propose a more positive model for understanding the purpose of sacrifices: “The sacrificial service is bound up internally with human awareness of God. As soon as man became aware that there is a Supreme Being in whose hands his entire existence was placed, he immediately felt an inner desire to recognize this Supreme Being as his master and to give this recognition concrete expression, namely: first through words, and subsequently, as his emotions intensified and pressed to erupt into concrete expression, also through palpable and vigorous actions, and not only through evanescent words.” (Hoffmann, Introduction, p. 64)

How, then, do the laws of sacrifices serve to advance the exploration of “couplehood” in the “honeymoon” of God and Israel in Vayikra? According to Ramban, the first lessson God’s partner must learn is “conflict management” – it is inevitable that all-too-human Israel will anger their divine partner, and Israel must learn how this anger may be assuaged, so that God’s indwelling Presence may continue to accompany them on their journey. According to Rabbis Hirsch and Hoffman, Israel must learn the secrets of establishing the language and behavior of intimacy with God. As the book of Vayikra progresses, Israel will learn that life in the presence of God will demand further lifestyle changes, but the sacrifices at the beginning of the book teach them how to invest in the relationship itself – how to bring it to its highest form of expression (Hirsh, Hoffman) and/or how to survive moments of conflict and anger (Ramban).

Today we no longer relate to God by means of sacrifices, but the beginning of Vayikra should teach us that we too need to find ways of investing in our intimate relationship with God.

Rav Avraham Walfish
Rabbi Dr. Avraham (Avie) Walfish resides in Tekoa and teaches at Herzog College (Alon Shvut) and heads an M.Ed. Program in Talmud and Jewish Thought at MIchlala Jerusalem. He seeks in his learning, teaching, and writing to combine close textual study with a search for religious and ethical values.


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