There is no good way to say it: most of the Book of Leviticus should be skipped. Yes, it includes “love your neighbor as yourself, but much of it makes for hard, unpleasant reading which is mostly irrelevant anyway. All the sacrifices, blood and gore? Why would our sages prescribe this as the first book for little children to learn?
We ended the Book of Exodus with the Mishkan completed. Professor of Kabala, Nadine Shenkar writes that the Mishkan was an architecturally amazing structure, representing a microcosm of the world and offering “a meeting between Heaven and earth that doesn’t happen here or there, but rather, in the middle…” Just like leaves, flowers and fruits on a tree, says Shenkar, don’t get their nourishment from the rain directly, but it must pass through the root system, flowing from the bottom up, so do we have to get our spiritual nourishment through the physical elements around us. Shabbat for example, is the most physically satisfying (also the one we work hardest for) and therefore, the most spiritual.
The Mishkan had to be a most physical structure as did everything that happened there, but we are told that initially, G-d’s glory in the form of the cloud rested on it so tightly, that there was no room for anyone. Even G-d had to “shrink”(whatever that means -) and make room for us. At the same time, when Moses was invited in, he was overwhelmed. When he wrote about this encounter, his humility wanted to write this as a chance encounter, rather than a dedicated meeting. After all, how could G-d Almighty Himself invite a human to meet at The Tent?? In Hebrew, he wanted to write vayikar (happened) rather than vayikra (He called). The midrash tells us that they compromised on a small alef at the end of the word vayikra, both teaching us the importance to make room for something else in our life. The Tent – ohel moed – is indeed known as the “Tent of Meeting”, and in order to meet, both parties have to come together. Moed also indicates dedicating time, and having a joint destiny (yi’ud).
The Book talks about our lofty connection with G-d, but delves into the most physical aspect that can be: detailed descriptions of animal sacrifices. Poor animals! We can see the picture: the farmer dragging his goat up the hill; the animal, sensing where it’s going, resentful, bleating; the priest waiting at the entrance, taking the struggling creature, trying to calm it but also knowing his task. Top this “barbaric” picture with the current politics surrounding the Temple Mount and the issue of bringing sacrifices becomes more and more unpopular.
But the Torah, quietly and persistently, stands and rejects our modern attitude. For one, it reminds us where meat comes from. It’s not a sealed package in the freezer compartment, not much different from the fruits and veggies in the other aisle. It was a live creature. There is no special blessing for eating meat. It’s a compromise, a necessity, it has a different impact and should not be taken lightly. More important, when brought as an offering, we have to understand “sacrifice”. In Hebrew, korban comes from karov, to come near. The Torah tells us that there is no way to come near to anything without giving up on something. The easiest place to see it is between parents and children. A baby doesn’t do much for the parents except cry, wake them up at night, ask for food, and then ignore them. What creates the bond (in very broad strokes) is the parents’ giving, not receiving. The children in turn, love, give and care to their kids. Visa vie the parents, they are commanded to “honor”. In our modern age, we got it all wrong: being a consumer society, we have the illusion that the more we get, the happier we are, but it turns out it’s about what we give, like St. Francis’s famous line: “in giving we receive”.
As much as it cares about all living things, the Torah here is largely concerned with the person bringing the sacrifice, not the animal, and the text is clear: “adam ki yakriv”- should a person wish to come near to G-d, he needs to give up on something. Giving up on nothing doesn’t create a relationship. And the person wishing or needing this closeness because of growing distance (through a transgression or just because) must give up a part of their animal nature, whether the part of himself that was stubborn, obstinate and fiery (like the bull), followed the herd thoughtlessly (like the sheep), or flippant (like the bird).
And the kids learning Leviticus? Maybe they too open with learning about the need to give, so the journey from childhood to adulthood moves one from natural, dedicated selfishness to learned, developed, dedicates service, awareness and care for another, so in a few portions “love your neighbor as yourself” will make sense.