The Book of Leviticus begins with a series of rules regarding the various kinds of sacrifices and the occasions on which they are to be offered, the first of which is the burnt offering or ‘olah, in Hebrew. In A Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament, authors Brown, Driver, and Briggs note that some Semitic scholars connect the Hebrew root for ‘olah to the Hebrew root for a wrongful act. By so doing, these scholars suggest that the burnt offering is the remedy for a class of wrongful acts.
Rabbi David Tzvi Hoffman, a pre-eminent German authority of the early part of the twentieth century and a Biblical scholar of the first rank, disagrees. He insists that the word ‘olah is not connected with wrongdoing but is, as it would appear to anyone familiar with Hebrew, entirely related to that which ascends. (The Hebrew word “al” means above.) He writes that “by making the offering ascend to heaven, the one who offers it expresses his desire and intention to ascend himself to Heaven, that is, to devote himself entirely to God and place his life in God’s service.”
In his commentary that bridges the positions between that of Semitic scholarship and that of Hoffman, Dr, J. H Hertz notes that the burnt offering was brought “whenever a man’s conscience prompted him to do so,” likely when feeling a sense of estrangement from God. However, communion with God is foreclosed to anyone who was tainted from sin, as the prophet Isaiah states: “your iniquities have separated you from your God” (Isa. 59:2). Hence, the burnt offering must have first had an expiatory that enabled the propitiant to commune with God.
It is appropriate, then, that the first text of the Torah that was traditionally taught to beginning schoolchildren was the Book of Leviticus. It is more than what the rabbis suggest when they state that those who are pure should learn about the sacrifices that are pure. It is an introduction to what may be called a plank in the platform of Judaism: act in such ways that will make you ready to ascend to God and dedicate yourself to His service.