Having completed the building of the Mishkan (Tabernacle) at the end of the Book of Exodus, the Book of Leviticus begins a new era – the era of regular sacrifices, the era of continual prayer in the Tabernacle, the era in which the Children of Israel have constant opportunity to approach their Father in Heaven:
“When He called to Moshe, Hashem spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting saying: Speak to the Children of Israel and say to them: When any person among you sacrifices a sacrifice to Hashem from the animals, from the cattle or from the flock you shall sacrifice your sacrifices” (Leviticus 1:1-2).
The Ramban (Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, Spain and Israel, 1195-c.1270) introduces the Book of Leviticus:
“This Book is the Torah of the Kohanim and the Levites; all subjects of sacrifices and the duties of the Tabernacle are clarified herein… The subject-matter of most of this Book is sacrifices, the laws of sacrifices, those who bring the sacrifices, and the place of sacrifice. Together with this are some of the commandments which follow on from these: after beginning with the free-will offerings , the Torah then forbids eating certain fats and blood [vs. 23-27]. And following on from the mention of sin-offerings the Torah mentions forbidden foods [chapter 11] because they contaminate…and anyone who enters the Holy Temple while contaminated is obligated to bring a wave-offering… After this, the Torah mentions the mitzvah of Shabbat and the Festivals [chapter 23] because of the sacrifices, as it says ‘These are Hashem’s appointed festivals which you shall proclaim as holy convocations, sacrificing a burnt-offering to Hashem: an elevation-offering and a meal-offering, a feast-offering and libation-offerings – each day’s sacrifice on its appropriate day’ ”.
The entire Book of Leviticus covers one month – the month of Nissan in the year 2449, exactly one year after the Exodus (see Exodus 40:17 and Numbers 1:1). Hence it is singularly appropriate that in non-leap years, we invariably begin reading this Book on the first Shabbat of Nissan.
(In leap years, we begin the Book of Leviticus in Adar II.)
The Mishnah tells us that “there are four New Years, the 1st of Nissan is New Year for Kings and for Festivals” (Rosh Hashanah 1:1). The Rambam (Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, Spain, Morocco, Israel, and Egypt, 1135-1204) explains: “Specifically Kings of Israel; and the practical application of this is for dating documents, such that as soon as the first day of Nissan begins, his reign is reckoned as entering its next year”.
Rabbi Ovadiah of Bartenura (Italy and Israel, late 15th century) says similarly: “The reigns of Kings of Israel are reckoned from Nissan, so that even if a king begins his reign in Sh’vat or Adar, as soon as Nissan comes his first year is completed and we begin to count his second year”.
Some ten months before the Book of Leviticus begins, we approached Mount Sinai and encamped at its base. In those last few hours before giving us His Torah, G-d defined us as His “Kingdom of Kohanim [Priests] and holy Nation” (Exodus 19:6).
It is singularly appropriate, therefore, that G-d’s “Kingdom of Kohanim and holy Nation” would begin their new era of sacrifices, of ever-closer devotion to G-d, on the 1st of Nisan, the New Year for Kings. The same date from which the reign of a King of Israel is reckoned, is the date on which the Nation of the Supreme King of kings reckons its new beginning.
And it is equally appropriate that we so often begin reading about this new era at about the beginning of Nissan.
Parashat Vayikra and the month of Nissan guide us into a new Book, a new month, a new year, a new era.
And this year, there is an additional component. In another few days, Israel will go to the polls to elect a new government. There are endless arguments (as we would expect from a nation of Jews) over which party to vote for, whether or not to vote at all, what the real issues are, how we should resolve these issues…
Democracy has plenty of shortcomings. And whether or not it is appropriate for a Jewish state is also debated endlessly.
But it has one insuperable benefit: a nation which goes to the polls to elect its own government is indisputably a free nation. For all its drawbacks, democracy is an unequivocal way for a nation to make a statement: We decide who will govern us! We are not beholden to any other nation! However incompetent, dishonest, unreliable, and corrupt our leaders may be – they are nevertheless our leaders, chosen by us from our nation, not forced upon us like taskmasters appointed over a nation of slaves.
The Haftarah for Parashat Vayikra is abstracted from Isaiah 43:21-44:23, in which G-d, speaking through the Prophet, castigates His people Israel for neglecting the sacrifices and indeed of all worship:
“I formed this nation for Myself, for them to tell My praise. But you did not call to Me, O Jacob, for you were tired of Me, O Israel. You did not bring Me the lamb or kid of your burnt-offerings, and with your sacrifices you did not honour Me…” (Isaiah 43:21-23).
But though Israel may have betrayed their mission by their deficiency in sacrifices, G-d nevertheless guarantees that He will not abandon His people:
“Thus said Hashem…Just as I pour out water on the thirsty land and flowing rivers on dry ground, so shall I pour out My Spirit on your seed and My blessing on your descendants; and they will flourish among the grass like willows by streams of water” (44:2-4).
When Israel returns to its Land, then G-d’s Spirit infuses both the nation and the Land with life. The Land which lay dreary and lifeless ever since the Roman Empire defeated and exiled us is coming back to life before our very eyes, as the Ingathering of the Exiles, too, inexorably gathers velocity.
The Haftarah concludes with the Prophet’s inspiring vision of Redemption:
“Remember these, O Jacob, and Israel: that you are My servant; I created you to be My servant. Israel – do not forsake me!...Return to Me, for I have redeemed you! Sing joyously, O heavens, about what Hashem has done; give praise, O lowest places of the earth; burst forth in glad song O mountains, O forest, and every tree therein; because Hashem has redeemed Jacob, and will glorify Himself in Israel” (44:21-23).
On these final words, the Radak (Rabbi David Kimchi, France, c.1160-c.1235) comments:
“Because G-d’s glory will be to bring His nation out of exile, and the [other] nations will glorify Him for this; and indeed Koresh [Cyrus, king of Persia] said: ‘Hashem, G-d of Heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth, and He has commanded me to build Him a Temple in Jerusalem which is in Judea’ (2 Chronicles 36:23)”.
And the Metzudat David adds, simply: “By redeeming Israel He will be glorified in everyone’s mouth”.
The Midrash cites a clear and simple principle which Rabbi Tanchuma (among the last of the Amora’im in the Land of Israel, the last and one of the greatest of the homiletic expounders on the Tanach) derived from this verse:
“G-d redeems Israel solely by the [combined] efforts [of Heaven and earth], as it says ‘Sing joyously, O heavens, about what Hashem has done; give praise, O lowest places of the earth’” (Devarim Rabbah 10:4).
Israel’s redemption is a combination of G-d’s decision and our physical actions. Thus it was in the Exodus from Egypt, thus it was with the construction of the Mishkan, and thus it was in the days of the second redemption, the redemption from Babylonian exile in the days of Koresh.
And thus it is in our generations, in the days as the final Redemption begins, as the Ingathering of the Exiles from all countries, near and distant, is no longer a dream or a hope, but a daily mundane fact.
This is what the Book of Leviticus begins with, this is what the Haftarah of Parashat Vayikra teaches.
This is indeed an appropriate way for God’s Kingdom of Kohanim and holy Nation to enter a new Book, a new month, a new year, and a new era.