Parashat Vayikra is the twenty-fourth weekly portion in the Torah and the first in the Book of Leviticus (1:1-5:26). Like Genesis and Exodus before it, the familiar name for this book comes from the term used for it among the Sages of Israel: in this case, “the Torah of the priests.” As the priests, the descendants of Aaron, belong to the Tribe of Levi, the Book of Leviticus, especially in its first half, focuses on their service in God’s House (and one extended narrative about their installation). Nevertheless, this book contains many mitzvot incumbent upon the nation as a whole; in fact, although it is the shortest of the Five Books of Moses, it contains more commandments than any other.
Parashat Vayikra in particular has a very rigid structure as it discusses the different types of sacrifices, divided into voluntary (Chapters 1-3) and obligatory (Chapters 4-5) offerings: first animals, then birds, then flour, then animals again. These include:
Ola (an animal or bird which is wholly burnt on the Altar)
Mincha (a flour-offering)
Shelamim (an animal shared by the Altar, priest and owner)
Chatat (animal, birds or flour to atone for an error)
Asham (an animal guilt-offering, sometimes brought for intentional transgressions)
The shelamim and chatat, at the center of the portion, are particularly intriguing and difficult to define. In many ways, they are mirror images. The term “shelamim” is connected to words like shalom (peace), shalem (complete) and shilum (payment). The term “chatat,” on the other hand, is related to chata’a (sin), chitui (cleansing) and hachta’a (missing a target).
Each represents an attempt to restore one’s spiritual equilibrium. Bringing a shelamim expresses a desire to recognize God’s generosity and kindness, to share of one’s bounty, as a matter of free will. Bringing a chatat expresses a desire to recognize that one has unwittingly been off the mark, spiritually speaking, and to correct one’s course by following the precise direction of God. Every man or woman may bring the same type of shelamim; but when it comes to the chatat, there are strict rules, based on the sinner’s identity: Has the whole nation sinned? Has the High Priest (here called “the anointed priest,” ha-kohen ha-mashiach, Anglicized as “messiah”)? Has the king? Or is it just an individual who has erred?
Moreover, when it comes to certain sins, the Torah advocates means testing: a rich person is required to bring an animal as a chatat, a middle-class person, a pair of birds; a pauper, a flour-offering.
Together, these rules paint a picture of a system of offerings designed to encourage a state of spiritual mindfulness.
The portion from the Prophets is from the forty-third and forty-fourth chapters of Isaiah; in it, God berates Israel for failing to appreciate the sacrificial service while it existed. Nevertheless, He promises to redeem and restore His people.