With Vayikra/Leviticus, we leave the drama of Moses’s interceding on behalf of God’s often stubborn and rebellious people, and move into what many scholars believe to be the Chumash/Pentateuch’s oldest book. It was originally known as Toraht Kohanim, or, the Priestly Laws, including the many and varied forms of sacrifices and offerings which the Israelites brought during the period of the portable sanctuary (mishkan) in the wilderness, and continuing for most of the two Holy Temple periods, the First Temple established during Solomon’s reign (approximately 9th Century BCE) to the Babylonian destruction in 586 BCE, and the Second Temple dating from Ezra and Nechemiah’s attempted restoration (515 BCE) through the Herodian period of its greatest glory (19 BCE), to its complete and final destruction by the Roman General Titus’s troops during the siege of Jerusalem (70 CE).
Every year, it seems, rabbis worldwide have to offer apologias for the Torah’s sacrificial period, during which our long-departed ancestors took pride in the offerings they brought to God—an alien notion to our modern, sterile, prayer-oriented sensibilities. Not all the animal sacrifices, which could range from an entire ox to the smallest dove, were burnt entirely on the altar (the olah, literally translated as “holocaust,” an offering consumed completely by fire), but were instead cut up, with portions distributed to the priests, Levites, and their families. Indeed, if an Israelite maiden married a Levite or Kohen, she and her ensuing children would forever eat only of the hekdesh, or those animal-, vegetable-, and grain-offerings which the Israelites dedicated to God.
The tribe of Levi was responsible for supplying all of the priestly and levitical men (kohanim and leviim) who served God in the temple, and they were prohibited from following any other profession (although the various priestly dynasties—e.g., Aaronide, Korachite, Hasmonean—alternated in this service throughout the year). This was the first instance in Jewish history of the tribes supporting those who prayed and made offerings on their behalf, and led directly to the rabbi-congregation relationship we follow today (although I must stress that rabbis are not priests: we are meant to be teachers, not sanctified personalities or intercessors between mortals and God, despite Chasidic hints in that direction).
There was also a sort of democracy among those who brought offerings: a rich man might be easily able to offer an entire sheep, while a poor widow would have to content herself with bringing only a pigeon or dove (Lev. 1:14-17). In such a case, the priest would burn the entire fowl, wings and meat together (to make it appear larger and more impressive), despite the acrid odor it created; indeed, the text calls this “a gift of pleasing odor to the Lord” (Lev. 1:17).
How so? Commentators on this verse have stated that, just as this meager offering was pleasant to God, coming as it did from a poor person, so are we to be commended, when we earn a modest living honestly, rather than commit crimes, openly or secretly, for greater gain. That is how we interpret the sacrificial system’s relevance today: never think to buy off the Deity with tainted lucre. The animal and other offerings brought by the Israelites were acceptable, only if they came from those of honest mind and humble heart.