There is a serious disagreement between Rashi and Ramban about when the charge to Moshe to inaugurate the Kohanim in this week’s parsha occurred. According to Rashi, the Torah goes backwards seven days before the Mishkan’s inauguration with the previous sections coming as a sort of foreshadowing of what these very Kohanim would need to learn. In other words, before the Torah can continue the story of the Mishkan’s, it had to fill us in on needed information. Ramban agrees that the Torah needs to fill us in on certain laws before going forward, but feels that all of the discussion is actually taking place on the first of Nissan, when the Mishkan was inaugurated. If so, the Torah does not actually break its chronological sequence.
But even according to Ramban, the Torah’s presents the information in a rather choppy way, bringing us all the way to Chapter 8 of Vayikra before continuing the story we had left off at the end of Shemot. The answer often give – that the laws of the sacrifices were needed for the inauguration – makes sense, but it fails to answer why they could not have been learned before, as were the other laws about the Mishkan in Parsht Terumah and Tetzaveh. This becomes an even stronger question since the very laws of the inauguration of the Kohanim that we saw in Chapter 8 actually go over much of what had already been told to Moshe in Parshat Tetzaveh. As God was teaching Moshe about an inauguration that would entail many sacrifices and as He was telling him about all the vessels to be used for sacrifices, why was it so necessary to hold off on the laws of the sacrifices themselves?
I believe that the reason this question appears so strong is that we think of the Torah as one long story, when it is most decidedly not. We rarely give much thought to what it means for the Torah to be divided into five different books. In fact, a more careful reading shows that each book has its own unique character and purpose. And while each one continues from where the last one left off, each one also takes us in a very new direction, weaving previous themes and approaches into its own unique tapestry.
While the Mishkan and its accoutrements, including its priests, all seem to be a part of the world of Shemot, the sacrificial rite is most decidedly not. In Shemot, the Mishkan is a continuation of the Sinai experience – a locus of revelation and connection with God. The few sacrifices that we read about in Shemot are incidental. Hence, when the plan for the Mishkan is unfurled in Shemot, the sacrifices are essentially tangential means to an ends.
Not so in Vayikra. The book known as Torat Kohanim is – unlike Shemot – not really about revelation. Rather it is about the daily struggle to raise man above his own physicality. That physicality is often summarized as his being of flesh and blood. And the sacrifices are the symbolic manifestation of what this book is meant to impress upon us about that.
Once we see this, it becomes obvious that the laws of the sacrifices belong in Vayikra – regardless of where they best fit in the story that surrounds it. And not only do they belong in Vayikra, they belong at its beginning, to give Vayikra its symbolic heading. When we understand this, many questions fall away. But more importantly still, when we understand it, we begin to open ourselves to the unique message of the Torah’s middle book.