The division of the Torah into five books is neither random nor simply intended to make a long text more user-friendly. Each of the Five Books of Moses has its own unique theme. Nachmanides explains that the theme of the Book of Leviticus, which we begin reading this Shabbat, is mitzvot. While a good amount of commandments are also imparted in the other four books, they are mentioned there incidentally, in the course of conveying the events or messages which are the primary message of those books.

Considering that this is the “Book of Mitzvot,” we would have expected this book to open with some of the primary mitzvot which form the basis of the Jew’s day. Prayer, tefillin, mezuzah, the laws of kashrut and Shabbat are some which immediately come to mind. Instead, the first portions of Leviticus discuss at length the laws of the various sacrifices offered during Temple times. This begs the question—why does the book devoted to mitzvot start with commandments which: a) aren’t permanent fixtures of Jewish life—they have been non-practicable for nearly two thousand years now; and b) were not part of the daily life of the average Jew (who only visited the Temple thrice yearly) even when sacrifices were offered in the Temple in Jerusalem.

Every person is born an animal, and must be tamed before earning the title of mentch—humanA closer examination of the deeper significance of mitzvot will lead us to conclude that sacrifices encapsulate the inner meaning of mitzvot perhaps more than any other individual mitzvah.

An animal is consumed by its desires and impulses of the moment, giving nary a thought to purpose, to future, to its betterment and refinement. Its emotions control its mind, using its limited cognitive abilities to further the heart’s agenda. The human, on the other hand, is endowed with the ability to harness his emotions, to act based on need, purpose and ambition rather than expediency and instant gratification. In truth, however, every person is born an animal, and must be educated from without and tamed from within before earning the title of mentch—human.

Becoming “human” in its truest sense is indeed a lofty objective. The world would be so much more pleasant and inviting if more and more people actively pursued this goal. But while mitzvot also greatly assist in this quest, this is hardly their ultimate objective. Mitzvot are intended to take the animal-turned-human and connect him to his Creator, to allow him to rise above the limitations of a mere mortal and become sanctified—human-turned-holy. This completes the circle; this creation which was originally animal has become holy.

Torah philosophy doesn’t agree with vegetarian activism, because the Torah recognizes the value of animal-turned-human—which is accomplished when someone who earned the title of human consumes the flesh of an animal. Indeed, it is a favor for the animal no less than it is a favor for the human: the animal now reaches a state it never could have reached while grazing in the field.

But animal-turned-holy—that’s what sacrifices are all about. An animal is taken and becomes sanctified by being offered to G‑d.

The commandments associated with sacrifices set the tone for the entire book, clarifying what the ultimate objective of the mitzvah really is.