What is religious service all about? If Vayikra holds the essentials of how to approach and serve God, the first four chapter, with their exquisite structure and minute details, are notably missing something. The prophets repeat again and again that sacrificial service without ethical commitment is meaningless. But is there any hint to that idea in these opening chapters of Vayikra? The answer lies in chapter 5.
In the first list of specific transgressions which demand the bringing of a korban, we find a surprising set of bookends. Bringing a sacrifice because of impurity, or because of a misuse of holy property, makes perfect sense. It fits. But why bring a sacrifice for failing to give testimony, or, strangest of all, for denying that one has another’s property in one’s possession? These are civil law cases which belong in Parshat Mishpatim. If someone steals, and is found guilty, let them return the money, let them be fined. But what does this have anything to do with worship of God?
This is precisely the point that chapter 5 comes to make. When a person misappropriates their fellow’s property, this is no different than a person misappropriating consecrated property. The Torah, very consciously, uses the same term for both: me’ilah. Rav Saadia Gaon says the term refers to breaking a covenant. Our covenant to God, the Torah is teaching us, is made up of our ethical commitment to one another just as much as it is made up of our commitment to God.
The ultimate corruption, one could say the ultimate me’ilah of the system is to bifurcate these elements, to think that one could be a good Jew without being a good person, that one can please God by following the minutiae of sacrificial service, without equal rigor in the moral realm.