The Jewish people has a rather peculiar relationship with Vayikra. On the one hand, almost all serious Jews are aware that many of Judaism’s most important laws and ideas are to be found in the Torah’s middle book. On the other hand, Vayikra also contains an overwhelming amount of material that the average reader will find less stimulating. And largely because of that, Jewish culture has created a type of vicious cycle around this book. Because it is more difficult, we tend to look at it less. But because we look at it less, we also understand it less, which – in turn – keeps it difficult and less appealing. In a nutshell, that is what I call Vayikra Avoidance Syndrome.
I just referred to Vayikra as the Torah’s middle book. This was not a casual turn of the phrase – that is the middle book is not a trivial matter. While we often celebrate beginnings and ends, at least two major Jewish institutions show the spiritual weightiness of something’s middle:
On the spatial level, we see this with the Temple menorah. For it is to the menorah’s middle light – the ner ma’aravi – that all the other flames point, whereas it points towards the center of the Temple’s inner sanctum and God’s presence. Its spiritual centrality was further emphasized by the fact that it would miraculously stay lit longer than all of the other lights, even though it received the same amount of oil. Temporally, we find a similar idea in the Jewish week. While Shabbat is the last day of the week chronologically, it is nonetheless its center halachically. That means that if someone did not finish his personal reading of the pasha on Shabbat or say havdalah immediately after it, he is able to do either of these for the next three days, until Tuesday afternoon. Hence just like the lights of the menorah point to the middle light, so too do the days of the week point to the Shabbat.
So we should not be surprised if the Torah’s middle book is actually its most important book as well. And if so, it would no longer be happenstance that R. Akiva found the great principle of the Torah, “love your neighbor as yourself,” specifically in this book. But it is not just this one doctrine, nor even several doctrines that pull this book above its neighbors. Rather the most important aspect of Vayikra is in its giving a strategy of how to accomplish that which the Torah is designed to achieve.
From such a perspective, we may gain insight into why a book the rabbis named Torat Kohanim, the Law of the Priests, is meant to help all Jews understand the essence of what God expects from them. For ostensibly the laws for the priests should have only be given to the priests themselves. Apparently, however, it is specifically these detailed and technical laws that are the ones that provide the spiritual center that informs the rest of the Torah.
The reason these laws should be of overriding interest to us is that – in a very real sense – all Jews are priests. For well before we get to Vayikra, the Torah already summarizes the Jewish mission as being “a nation of priests.” Hence to know what the Jewish mission is all about, we need to know what the Torah means by the term, “priest.”
The upshot of the above is that the sons of Aharon and their descendants serve as a model for the entire Jewish people. Once we know what is expected from them, we can have a better idea of what is expected from us. And if we are understand the book of Vayikra in this way, its contents begin to meld into a greater whole as well. We should not be surprised to now see that the process just described forms the actual outline of the book: The first half (Chapters 1-16) goes over many of the laws of the priests in such a way as to show a spiritual strategy. Once that strategy has been revealed, the second half (Chapters 17-27) proceeds to create a new model of Jewish life based on the priestly model just worked out. Once aware of this outline, we realize just how confusing, even confounding, much of what we encounter in Vayikra would otherwise be. In contrast, fully internalizing what Vayikra is about, allows its various components to fit together with élan and sophistication.
The above brings us back to R. Akiva’s locating the central concept of loving neighbor (reacha) as self specifically in Sefer Vayikra: More than one major commentator has understood the commandment of loving reacha to be speaking about all men. In light of what we are suggesting, this really makes perfect sense. Plugging this understanding into R. Akiva’s statement, the great principle of the Torah ends up being nothing less than that the Jew do his or her utmost to help everyone – something that can only be accomplished by being a priest to mankind. This is the center of the Torah. The rest is commentary. And much of that commentary – how the Jew is to do so most effectively – is found in Vayikra!
(Excerpted from Redeeming Relevance in the Book of Leviticus, the fifth and final volume of the series, just released by Urim Publications http://www.urimpublications.com)