Vayikra (Leviticus 1:1)
Said Rav Assi: Why do young children begin [the study of Torah] with the book of Leviticus, and not with Genesis? Surely it is because young children are pure, and the korbanot are pure; so let the pure come and engage in the study of the pure.
Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Lubavitch (who later became the third Rebbe of Chabad) entered cheder on the day after Yom Kippur of the year 1792, eleven days after his third birthday. The child’s grandfather, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, instructed Reb Avraham the melamed to begin the first lesson with the opening verses of Vayikra.
Following the lesson, the child asked: “Why is the word vayikra written with a little aleph?”
For a long while Rabbi Schneur Zalman sat in a deep meditative trance. Then he explained:
“The first man, Adam, was ‘the handiwork of G‑d,’ and G‑d attested that his wisdom was greater than that of the angels. Adam was aware of his own greatness, and this awareness caused him to overestimate himself and led to his downfall in the sin of the Tree of Knowledge.
“Moses, who possessed a soul deriving from chochmah of atzilut (the highest manifestation of Divine wisdom), was also aware of his own greatness. But this did not lead him toward self-aggrandizement. On the contrary, it evoked in him a broken and anguished heart, and made him extremely humble in his own eyes, thinking to himself that if someone else had been blessed with the gifts with which he, Moses, had been blessed, that other person would surely have achieved far more than himself. Thus G‑d testifies in the Torah that ‘Moses was the most humble man upon the face of the earth.’
“In the letters of the Torah, which G‑d gave at Sinai, there are three sizes: intermediate letters, oversized letters and miniature letters. As a rule, the Torah is written with intermediate letters, signifying that a person should strive for the level of ‘the intermediate man’ (a concept that Rabbi Schneur Zalman puts forth in his Tanya). Adam’s name is spelled with an oversize aleph (in I Chronicles 1:1), because his self-awareness led to his downfall. On the other hand, Moses, through his sense of insufficiency, attained the highest level of humility, expressed by the miniature aleph of Vayikra.”
(From the talks of the sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneerson)
Said Rabbi Tanchum ben Chanilai: Normally, a burden which is heavy for one is light for two, or one heavy for two is light for four; but can a burden too heavy for 600,000 be bearable for one? Now all Israel were standing before Mount Sinai, and saying: “If we hear the voice of G‑d . . . any more, we shall die” (Deuteronomy 5:22), while Moses heard the voice by himself and remained alive.
The verse does not say “a man of you who shall bring near an offering,” but “a man who shall bring near of you an offering”—the offering must come from within the person. It is the animal within man that must be “brought near” and elevated by the Divine fire upon the altar.
Why does G‑d use the word adam for “man” (instead of the more common synonym ish)? To teach us that a person cannot offer to G‑d what has not been honestly obtained by him. G‑d is saying: When you bring an offering to Me, be like Adam the first man, who could not have stolen from anyone, since he was alone in the world.
(Midrash Tanchuma; Rashi)
When we speak of Adam as one who “was alone in the world,” we are speaking of the very first hours of his life. Thus we are speaking of Adam before he partook of the Tree of Knowledge—of man still unsullied by sin.
This is the deeper significance of the Torah’s reference to the bearer of a korban—which has the power to obtain atonement for a transgression—as an “Adam.” Every man, the Torah is saying, harbors in the pith of his soul a pristine “Adam,” a primordial man untouched by sin. Even at the very moment when his external self was transgressing the Divine will, his inner essence remained loyal to G‑d; it was only silenced and suppressed by his baser instincts. It is by accessing this core of purity, by unearthing that part of himself that did not sin in the first place and restoring it to its rightful place as the sovereign of his life, that man attains the state of teshuvah—return to his original state of perfection.
(The Lubavitcher Rebbe)
It is pleasurable to Me that I have spoken and My will was done.
[Regarding the offerings,] it is said: “This is an ordinance forever to Israel” (II Chronicles 2:3). Rav Giddal said in the name of Rav: This refers to the altar built in heaven where Michael, the great Prince, stands and offers up an offering.
Rabbi Yochanan said: It refers to the scholars who are occupied with the laws of the Temple service—The Torah regards it as though the Temple were built in their days.
(Talmud, Menachot 110a)
The bird flies about and swoops throughout the world, and eats indiscriminately; it eats food obtained by robbery and by violence. Said G‑d: Since this crop is filled with the proceeds of robbery and violence, let it not be offered on the altar. . . . On the other hand, the domestic animal is reared on the crib of its master, and eats neither indiscriminately nor of that obtained by robbery or by violence; for this reason the whole of it is offered up.
(Midrash Rabbah; Rashi)
The wings, with the feathers, were burned with it. An ordinary being, should he smell the odor of burning feathers, is nauseated thereby. . . . Why then all this? Just in order that the altar may be sated and glorified by the sacrifice of a pauper.
(Midrash Rabbah; Rashi)
Why is the meal offering distinguished in that the expression “soul” is used? Because G‑d says: “Who is it that usually brings a meal offering? It is the poor man. I account it as though he had offered his own soul to Me.”
Why is the meal offering distinguished in that five kinds of oil dishes are stated in connection with it? This can be likened to the case of a human king for whom his friend had prepared a feast. The king knew that his friend was poor [and had only one food to offer him], so he said to him: “Prepare it for me in five kinds of dishes, so that I will derive pleasure from you.”
(Talmud, Menachot 104b)
It is said of a large ox, “A fire offering, a sweet savor”; of a small bird, “A fire offering, a sweet savor”; and of a meal offering, “A fire offering, a sweet savor.” This is to teach you that it is the same whether a person offers much or little, so long as he directs his heart to heaven.
(Talmud, Menachot 110a)
An ox was once being led to sacrifice, but would not budge. A poor man came along with a bundle of endives in his hand. He held it out towards the ox, which ate it . . . and then allowed itself to be led to sacrifice. In a dream it was revealed to the owner of the ox: “The poor man’s sacrifice superseded yours.”
Once a woman brought a handful of fine flour, and the priest despised her, saying: “See what she offers! What is there in this to eat? What is there in this to offer up?” It was shown to him in a dream: “Do not despise her! It is regarded as if she had sacrificed her own life.”
Leaven, which is dough that has fermented and risen, represents self-inflation and pride, and there is nothing more abhorrent to G‑d. In the words of the Talmud, “G‑d says of the prideful one, ‘He and I cannot dwell together in the world.’”
(The Chassidic Masters)
Ultra-sweet honey and ultra-sour leaven are opposite extremes; G‑d does not like extremes.
(The Rebbe of Kotzk)
When G‑d separated the supernal waters from the lower waters (see Genesis 1:6–8), He made a covenant with the lower waters that their salt will be offered on the altar.
The world is one part wilderness, one part settled land and one part sea. Said the sea to G‑d: “Master of the Universe! The Torah will be given in the wilderness; the Holy Temple will be built on settled land; and what about me?” Said G‑d: “The people of Israel will offer your salt upon the altar.”
The korban, which was the vehicle of the elevation of the world to G‑d, had to include “representatives” of all four sectors of creation: the inanimate world, the vegetable world, the animal world and the human world. Thus the korban was offered by a human being, and consisted of an animal, grain and salt.
(Rabbi Isaac Luria)
Why is it called a “peace offering”? Because everyone partakes of it. The blood and fat go to the altar, the breast and thigh to the priest, and the hide and flesh to the owner.
Do you think that He needs to eat? Does not the verse (Psalms 50:12–13) proclaim, “Should I hunger, I would not tell you, for the world and all it contains is Mine. Do I eat the flesh of bulls, or drink the blood of goats?” But it is not for My desire that you are offering, [says G‑d,] but for your own, as it is written (Leviticus 19:5), “For your own desire you should offer it.”
(Talmud, Menachot 110a)
When the Torah refers to the korbanot as “G‑d’s bread,” this is obviously a metaphor; but what is its significance? In what sense are we “feeding” G‑d when we offer up to Him ourselves and our material resources in the quest to serve Him?
Our sages have said that “G‑d fills the world as a soul fills a body.” On the human level, food is what sustains “life,” which is the assertion of the soul’s powers via its physical vessel, the body. And so it is with the Divine life-force that suffuses the created existence: “G‑d’s food” is what we would call whatever it is that asserts the Divine reality as a manifest presence in our physical world.
With our every act of serving G‑d, we fulfill the divine purpose of creation—that “there be for Him a dwelling in the physical realms.” We thus breathe life into the world-body, asserting and manifesting its quintessence and soul.
(The Chassidic Masters)
Everything that is for the sake of G‑d should be of the best and most beautiful. When one builds a house of prayer, it should be more beautiful than his own dwelling. When one feeds the hungry, he should feed him of the best and sweetest of his table. When one clothes the naked, he should clothe him with the finest of his clothes. Whenever one designates something for a holy purpose, he should sanctify the finest of his possessions, as it is written, “All the fat is to G‑d.”
When a leader sins, this becomes the excuse for everyone else’s wrongdoings.
(The Gaon of Lissa)
The Torah employs the uncommon usage asher (“that a . . .”), to say: Fortunate (ashrei) is the generation whose leader applies himself to atone for his errors.
There was once a governor who used to put to death the purchasers of stolen goods and release the thieves, and all used to find fault with him, saying that he was not acting correctly. What did he do? He issued a proclamation throughout the province, saying: “Let all the people go out to the campus!” What did he do then? He brought some weasels and placed before them portions of food. The weasels took the portions and carried them to their holes. The next day he again issued a proclamation, saying: “Let all the people go out to the campus!” Again he brought weasels and placed portions of food before them, but stopped up all the holes. The weasels took the portions and carried them to their holes, but finding these stopped up, they brought their portions back to their places. Thus he demonstrated that all the trouble is due to the receivers.
This then we learn from the governor. How can we illustrate our text by an example? Reuben stole from Simeon, and Levi knew of it. Said Reuben to Levi: “Do not testify against me, and I will give you half.” The following day people enter the synagogue and hear the overseer announce: “Who has stolen from Simeon?” and Levi is present there. Surely The Torah has decreed: “If he does not testify, then he shall hear his iniquity.”
If a person witnesses a wrongdoing of his fellow, this is a message to him that he too is guilty of a similar failing.
(Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov)
The addition should be a fifth of the addition and the principal together (i.e., he must add 25% of the principal); this is the opinion of Rabbi Yoshiah. Rabbi Jonathan says: a fifth of the principal.
(Talmud, Bava Metzia 54a)
One who knows for certain that he transgressed brings a sin offering; one who doubts if he transgressed must atone with a guilt offering. Why does the one who has perhaps not transgressed require the more valuable offering? Because his regret is not as complete.
Said Rabbi Akiva: Why does the Torah consider him to have committed “a betrayal against G‑d”? . . . Because in defrauding his fellow, he is also defrauding the Third Party to their dealings.
How is the offender also defrauding G‑d? On the most basic level, he is defying the supernal Author of the command “You shall not steal.” Another explanation is that although it may be that not a single earthly soul knows what really happened between the litigants, G‑d is the omnipresent witness to their dealings; so in addition to lying to his fellow, he is lying in face of the all-knowing “Third Party to their dealings.”
A deeper understanding of the defrauder’s crime against G‑d can be derived from another saying by Rabbi Akiva, in which he speaks of how G‑d “acquired His world and bequeathed it” to man (Talmud, Rosh Hashanah 31a). Chassidic teaching explains this to mean that the concept of human “property rights” over the resources of G‑d’s world is Divinely ordained, and is integral to the Divine purpose in creation: in order for man to be able to develop his environment into a “home for G‑d,” thereby making the world a true Divine “acquisition,” each individual’s proprietorship over the portion of creation he is charged to develop must be defined and safeguarded. Hence G‑d’s “bequest of His world” to man is at the very heart of His own ownership—this is the manner in which the Creator Himself desired that His “acquisition” of creation be realized.
Thus the Torah says: “If a person . . . commits a betrayal against G‑d, and lies to his fellow,” then you have not only lied to your fellow—you have betrayed the “Third Partner,” depriving Him of His ownership of His world as He Himself defines it.
(The Lubavitcher Rebbe)