Leviticus is the third, and thus central, book of the Five Books of Moses. As such, its content forms the core of the Torah; in this sense, the Books of Genesis and Exodus can together be considered its prelude and the Books of Numbers and Deuteronomy its postlude.

The Book of Genesis describes why there had to be a Jewish people living in the Land of Israel. There was an original vision for creation, an opportunity that was missed; this set into motion a downward spiral of history that made it necessary for God to isolate a faithful core of humanity—Abraham’s family—to preserve, bear, and eventually re-announce His message to the world. The Book of Exodus describes how this family was made into “a kingdom of nobles and a holy nation,” and how the mechanisms whereby this nation could indeed bring the Divine Presence down to earth (i.e., the Torah, repentance, and the Tabernacle) were set up. The Book of Leviticus records the details of exactly how this end is to be achieved.

This notion is eloquently expressed by the very first word in the book, from which the whole book takes its Hebrew name: Vayikra, meaning “and He called.” The prefixed “and” immediately connects the beginning of Leviticus with the end of Exodus: “Moses could not enter the Tent of Meeting since the cloud had rested on it and God’s glory filled the Tabernacle.”1 Since Moses could not enter himself, God called out to him, thereby enabling him to enter and bear the experience of His Glory in order to hear His message. This clearly indicates that the events recorded in the Book of Exodus were intended to set the stage for God to call Moses and convey to him the contents of the Book of Leviticus.

Furthermore, the usual way the Torah opens its descriptions of God talking to Moses is with the ubiquitous phrase, “God spoke to Moses, saying.” In the opening of the Book of Leviticus, however, before the variant of this phrase—“God spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting, saying”—the Torah informs us that whenever “God spoke to Moses,” He first “called out to Moses,” implying that His communications with Moses were not merely for the purpose of laying down His law for humanity, but in order to call out to us, imploring us and challenging us to respond, asking us to treat the laws of the Torah not merely as dry obligations but as our common meeting-ground with Him. To emphasize this point, this opening phrase is not worded “God called out” but “He called out,” referring to God’s very essence, not to any aspect of Him that can be defined or circumscribed by any of His Names. It is God’s essence that calls out to us in the Book of Leviticus (and thence—since Leviticus is the Torah’s central core—from the rest of the Torah).

Thus, although there is very little dramatic “action” in the Book of Leviticus, it is here that the real “action” takes place: the inner life of the individual soul and the soul of the community in their communion with God. The Talmud compares studying the laws of Leviticus to slaying a lion,2 since it is the most difficult book of the Torah, filled with complex laws and intricate rules. But this, after all, is the essence of the Torah: its instructions for life. The final, summary verse of Leviticus expresses this theme as being that of the entire book: “These are the commandments that God commanded Moses to the Israelites on Mount Sinai.”

Leviticus, then, is the quintessential book of the Torah. It is therefore significant that it is not only the middle book of the Torah but the third book, for the number three expresses the essence of the Torah. The Torah is composed of three parts—the Five Books of Moses, the Prophets, and the Writings; it was given in the third month of the Jewish calendar—Sivan; it was given to a nation of three classes—Priests, Levites, and Israelites; it was given after three days of preparation;3 and it was taught to the people by three siblings—Moses, Aaron, and Miriam.4 The number three signifies the synergy that results from the paradoxical but harmonious combination of the two elements of a duality, and this is the very essence of the Torah: it takes two opposing entities, the physical and the spiritual, and creates from them a third—the peaceful fusion of the mundane and the holy.5

The name of the first parashah of the book of Leviticus shares its Hebrew name—Vayikra (“and He called”)—with that of the book as a whole. In light of what we said above, this would imply that the principal way through which God calls us, and thus the essence of the entire Book of Leviticus (and therefore of the entire Torah), is contained in this parashah.

The subject matter of parashat Vayikra is the sacrifices. Although we will continue to use the words “sacrifice” and “offering” to refer to these rites, it should be kept in mind that their Hebrew name, korban, carries neither of these meanings, but means “getting close.” Our response to God’s call in the opening word of the parashah is our commensurate efforts to draw close to Him.

Although people generally associate sacrifices with atonement for sin, it is significant to note that the first half of this parashah’s discussion of sacrifices does not mention sin-offerings at all. The first sacrifices mentioned are voluntary offerings, which the individual brings to God out of an inner desire to draw closer to Him in some way.

Yet the fact that this parashah does include sin-offerings, and ends with the mention of sin, to boot—“And he will be forgiven for any one of all cases whereby one may commit a sin, incurring guilt through it”6—indicates that God’s affectionate and impassioned call to the Jewish people is addressed not only to the guiltless among us (or to any of us only when guiltless), but to all of us, at all times. Indeed, it is precisely because God’s essence calls out to us that it overlooks our spiritual state and instead speaks to our essence.

In this sense, parashat Vayikra is clearly an affirmation of the groundwork laid in the closing three parashiot of the preceding book, Exodus. It will be recalled that after the sin of the Golden Calf (in parashat Tisa), God taught Moses the sublime secret of teshuvah—repentance—i.e., how we can invoke our intrinsic connection with God in order to effect atonement for our sins, thereby ascending to a higher connection with God than we enjoyed before the sin. The fact that the Torah introduces the dynamic of teshuvah after the it gives the instructions for constructing the Tabernacle (in parashiot Terumah and Tetzaveh) but before they are carried out (in parashiot Vayakheil and Pekudei) implies that the actual Tabernacle should be infused with the dual consciousness of teshuvah: that repentance is, on the one hand, occasioned by a descent from the pristine vision of perfection, but on the other hand, leads to an even higher consummation of that vision.

And so, when the time comes to detail the intricate paths that penitent souls must follow on the path of teshuvah, when they once again draw close to God after some temporary estrangement from Him, God calls out to them from His sublime essence, too exalted to be alluded to by any Name, and, on the basis of that intrinsic connection between essence and essence, the process of restitution and rectification begins. It is thus in the forgiveness of sin—the closing note of parashat Vayikra—that the opening call from God’s essence reaches its fullest and most profound expression.7