The English (Greek) name for this book of the Bible is Leviticus, which is appropriate because the book is predominantly about the Temple services, and the role of the Levites. In Hebrew, however, the name of both the book, and this first Torah reading is Vayikra, meaning “He called”. This name is taken from the first word, but how is it appropriate to the content of Leviticus?
Rashi’s first comment on this book is: “Each time that G-d spoke to or commanded Moshe, He preceded it by calling to him, which is a form of affection ....”. This is contrasted to the way in which G-d appeared to Bilam, the non-Jewish prophet, with the phrase “Vayikar” (Numbers 23; 4), which means “happened upon”. G-d did not want to enter into the same relationship with Bilam that he had with Moshe, and with later Jewish prophets. Why does the Torah single out this time to tell us that G-d called to Moshe?
Calling someone or something by their name expresses its inner essence. For example, Adam called names to the animals (Genesis 2; 19-20). G-d gave Adam this task because he was able to perceive the true qualities that define each creature. Similarly we find G-d calling names to objects during the days of creation, “G-d called the light day, and the darkness He called night ...” (ibid. 1; 5). If these names were merely a convention to enable reference to objects there would be no need for the Torah to mention that these names are part of the structure of creation. Rather the naming of an object denotes its role in creation. It is for this reason that Rashi explains G-d’s calling to Moshe as a sign of affection. He is defining Moshe’s role as one who can speak to G-d.
How is the book of Leviticus the most appropriate definition of who Moshe and the Jewish nation are? Why does the Torah give us this sign of affection at this point? Rambam writes (Hilchot Me’ila 8; 8), “Mishpatim (laws) are those commandments for which the reason is obvious, and the benefit of observing them is well known, for example the prohibitions on stealing and murder, and honouring parents. Chukim (statutes) are those commandments for which the reason is not known … for example the prohibitions of eating pig, or meat and milk, … and the red heifer. … All the sacrifices are in the category of Chukim.”
Why should we be obligated to keep commandments which make no sense to us? Surely Judaism is a rational religion, yet we are commanded to abide by statutes which are impossible for us to fathom. How can we justify such blind faith? This can be answered with an analogy. There are many things in science which we cannot prove empirically, for example, until very recently certain quarks (sub atomic particles) could not be detected. Even without direct proof, scientists believed that they existed, and were able to describe their properties. This is not blind faith, physicists were convinced of their existence because they were necessary to explain other properties of the universe which had been observed.
So too with the Chukim. Having experienced G-d directly at Mount Sinai the Jews knew that the Torah was Divine, and that it contained the blueprint of the universe. Furthermore, after the Exodus from Egypt it was clear that G-d was working in the Jews’ best interests. Therefore it follows that the laws which He gave are also in our best interests, and even without knowing how or why they work we can accept them as binding. In addition many of the commandments are understandable within a social context, and none of them go against our logic (though many are beyond the grasp of our understanding). So the Chukim demonstrate our conviction of belief even more than those laws which we can understand.
This is why this time G-d began with the word Vayikra. Though He called to Moshe before every encounter, G-d wanted to stress the affection inherent in the sacrifices, as the largest body of Chukim. Observance of these statutes shows our total devotion to G-d, even with regard to laws that we would not have come to make based solely on our logic. Similarly by commanding us with these Chukim G-d shows His affection for us, giving us the keys to the universe that are not accessible to humans through logic alone.
By opening the book with the word Vayikra, G-d also shows that this is the true essence of the Jewish nation. He defines our role in the world as a people who follow G-d’s commands devotedly, even when we are unable to understand them. This explains the reason that the whole book which details the Levitical rites and the sacrifices is known by this name which describes the mutual affection between the Jews and G-d.