As we start the third book of the Torah, Vayikra, we are plunged into a world of sacrifices and rituals. It seems remote from our modern lives. The tradition that it was the first book of the Torah to be studied by children is a mystery. That it is known as Leviticus, referring to the Leviim as priests, is also a challenge. In Judaism we have Rabbis (teachers). Moses was never a priest. The concept of priesthood, intercession with God, was foreign. It derived from the poor translation of “Cohen Gadol” as “High Priest” by early Christian writers.
The word “Vayikra” is properly translated as a “calling”. The Leviim were called into service, firstly to the tabernacle and later to the Temple. It was to be a duty. That is not what most of us understand by a “calling”. There is a difference in inheriting a “gift” and using it to fulfil a vocation. A “calling” is something we experience; an understanding that this is a mission that gives meaning in our lives. Rashi uses the phrase “called to a task in love”
The descriptions of animal sacrifice can seem abhorrent to us. It is not such a new cultural concept. Maimonides, in the 12th century, (in his Guide for the Perplexed), suggested that God commanded animal sacrifice because that's what the people God was addressing at the time were used to.
As is often the case when reading the Torah, it needs to be understood not as a simple historical document. It asks us to look deeper, for guidance and relevance in our relationships with one another as well as with God.
The word “korban”, translated as “offering”, can refer to our acknowledging bad things we have done either deliberately or inadvertently or offering blessings for the good we have experienced or the evil from which we have been saved.
The Parasha describes four types of offering: ascending, peace sin and guilt offerings. The first two are easy to understand but sin and guilt have to be understood differently.
Deliberate, pre-planned sin, (The legal term is “mens rea”) is surely not going to be atoned for by a sacrifice made by Leviite on an altar. It requires understanding of the harm that it has caused and a positive act of repair towards those who have been harmed.
Unintentional sin may be carried out under duress, such as having a gun pointed at you, or as a result of ignorance. Many commentators over the years have argued that ignorance is a form of negligence.
Perhaps that is why children are asked to commence their study of Torah with this Book. It is not so much the detail of the rather gory procedures but an understanding that life is an ongoing task. We no longer sacrifice in a Temple but making the world a better place can be our own sacrifice today.