Vayikra starts with the remedy for when a person has become separated from goodness, namely the procedures for bringing offerings before particular difficulties occur. A way is offered to put things right when transgressions occur, so as to restore a close relationship between human beingsand God, and indeed between people.
What does this tell us?
That the author of these words and laws wanted there to be a way for people to be reunited with each other and for there to be the potential for reunification between the transgressor and God, and with their own potential for goodness; because if there were no mechanism for reintegration, transgressors would be pushed away from the whole community and towards future failings.
God’s presence resided as much in the Tent of Meeting as it did on Mount Sinai. At the times when the cloud of God’s presence filled the Tent even Moses could not enter (Exodus 40:34) until he was summoned by a call, as here at the start of Vayikra (and He called). This equivalence in holiness between the two places is a bit surprising because Mount Sinai is a natural site, described with reference to elemental forces such as clouds, thunder and lightning, whereas the Tabernacle is the product of human collaboration and gifts. Thus the Torah teaches that through our collective collaboration and endeavours we enable goodness to dwell amongst us by finding expression in the ways in which we conduct ourselves.
Instructions concerning the system of remedial offerings is addressed to any one of your people, using the term ‘adam’, thereby including not only women and men but also non-Israelites as well. This text, for all its detailed specifications, is for the outset concerned with inclusiveness.
The person who was bringing the offering would place their hands on the head of the animal to be sacrificed, signifying a transference of their own shortcomings on to the animal. The animal’s life was in lieu of their own. This must have been very sobering, not least because they were brought into personal involvement with the animal’s death.
The commentator Abarbanel (1437-1508) identifies five actions they were to perform: (1) laying on of hands, (2) slaughtering, (3) flaying, (4) cutting into sections and (5) washing. All the work of preparation. The priest would then preform five actions in the Sanctuary itself: (1) offering the blood, (2) dashing it against the Alter, (3) putting fire on the Altar, (4) laying wood on the fire, and (5) laying out the sections on the wood. In short all the work of actually presenting the offering. Taken together the work of preparation and presentation enabled the sinner to be forgiven.
Those bringing an offering saw a substantial part of their wealth going up in smoke. However those lacking in the necessary funds could bring a dove instead of larger animals, and the very poorest could bring a flour offering, elevated by the addition of frankincense. The person bringing a flour offering participated in its preparation by pouring oil onto the flour and adding the frankincense, and by cooking the flour offering in various ways. The priest would then turn a portion of it, including all the frankincense, into smoke on the altar which resulted in ‘a pleasing odour to the Eternal’, as did the meat when it was offered. However the flour offerings were more than simply the equivalent of the animal and bird offerings, they were singled out as being, ‘a most holy portion from the Eternal’s offerings by fire’ and this praise is given twice (Leviticus 2:3 and 2:10). Thus the poorest people were provided with a most honoured way of participating in the procedures that reintegrated people into the holy community.
Sins against a person’s fellows though financial cheating, fraud or robbery were to be corrected by repaying the loss one had caused others, plus an additional fifth in compensation. These sins also involved flouting God’s laws. So a ram for a guilt offering was also required before the priest could make atonement for the penitent. So Vayikra teaches that the way we treat others is integral to our relationship with God and with our own potential goodness, since as the Torah states about each of us, ‘the soul You have given us is holy.’
Rabbi Adam Frankenberg (ordained 2015)