"And He called to Moses, and God spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting, saying..." (Leviticus 1:1)
The verb "to call" in Hebrew is vayikra; if you read the text in the original Hebrew you can see that the word is written with a midget sized aleph. This lends the word a surface resemblance to a different Hebrew word - vayikor, which means, "to chance upon." Both of these words are often associated with prophecy throughout the Torah except that the word vayikor is specifically selected to convey the very opposite of the idea of "to call"; the intention is to portray the prophetic experience it describes as no more than a chance encounter.
People who are selected by God to be prophets are generally on a very high spiritual level; prophets are beloved of God. (See Maimonides, Foundations of the Torah, Ch.7) Sometimes God will conduct a conversation with a person who is far from beloved; a person that He is 'reluctant' to be associated with. He talks to such people when He needs to communicate some vital information specifically through them; when this happens, God is careful to describe such conversations as having 'taken place by chance'. He wants to emphasize that they were necessity driven rather than relationship oriented. For example, the word vayikor is used to describe the contact between God and the non-Jewish prophet, Bilaam (Numbers 23:16).
In the context of a conversation with Moses, who was certainly beloved of God, the implication conveyed by the small aleph is false and inappropriate. The Ba'al Haturim, a medieval commentator, basing himself on Rashi's commentary, explains:
In his monumental humility, Moses wished to describe God's revelation to him with the same uncomplimentary word used to describe God's connection to Bilaam; he wanted to omit the aleph. God insisted that he write the aleph; He wanted to emphasize that His call to Moses was not by chance. It was issued voluntarily and was the expression of the deepest affection. Too humble to do this wholeheartedly, Moses inserted a small aleph.
Although humility is an admirable trait, its expression in this instance seems totally inappropriate. The call to Moses was not issued to him in his personal capacity but as the representative of the Jewish people. This same humble Moses fought like a lion when God threatened to withdraw His special connection to the Jewish people or to himself as their representative:
"How then will it be known that I have found favor in Your eyes, I and Your people, unless You accompany us, and I and Your people are made distinct from every people on the face of the earth!" (Exodus 33:16)
Rashi (ibid.) interprets this passage as a plea to relate to Jewish prophets in terms of the special relationship the Jewish people enjoys with God: Jewish prophets should be treated with special affection as representatives of their nation no matter what their personal merit might be. The description of the connection that flows through Jewish prophecy as Vayikra, in contrast to non-Jewish prophecy characterized as Vayekor, is a direct outcome of Moses' own request.
How does it make sense for Moses to deliberately attempt to nullify the very distinction that he fought to obtain? It is not his personal honor that is at stake; the enunciation of the special status of the Jewish people in God's eyes is at stake in the omission of this crucial little aleph. This is hardly the appropriate occasion for a demonstration of personal humility.
To find the answer to the problem, we must first discuss the theme of the Book of Leviticus, called Vayikra in Hebrew. On closer examination, the origin of the entire Book is to be found in the little Aleph of our story.
THE TROUBLE WITH SACRIFICES
This week's Torah portion - Parshat Vayikra – opens an entire book devoted largely to the description of different sorts of animal sacrifices and the rules that are associated with offering them.
The modern mind has difficulty relating to the idea of offering such sacrifices to God; we cannot help regarding the ceremonious butchering of animals as barbaric, a practice that belongs to a more primitive age. Yet we Jews pray for the rebuilding of the Temple and the reinstatement of animal sacrifices three times daily; it is therefore important to gain some insight into the practice, and attempt to understand how sensible human beings can accept it as essential to maintaining a close relationship with God.
Jewish tradition teaches that a person has two souls. He has a nefesh ha-elohit, a "Divine soul" and a nefesh ha-behamit, literally an "animal soul." The animal soul is attached to the blood and serves as the source of the energy that powers life; it is the quality we think of as the 'life force'. God Himself states in the Torah:
"Any man of the House of Israel and from the proselyte who shall dwell among them who will consume any blood, I shall concentrate My attention upon the soul consuming the blood, and I will cut it off from the midst of its people. For the soul of the flesh is in the blood and I have assigned it for you upon the altar to provide atonement for your souls; for it is the blood that atones for the soul." (Leviticus 17:10-11)
English is not a spiritual language; it lacks the vocabulary to differentiate between the different parts of the soul. A soul is just a soul. Not so Hebrew, the language of the Torah, which is very rich in words that describe spiritual phenomena.
LEVELS OF SOUL
According to Jewish tradition the Divine soul has various levels:
- The lowest level of the soul is the nefesh ha-elohit, a spiritual 'life force' that exactly parallels the nefesh ha-behamit.
- This nefesh is attached to something on a higher spiritual level called the ruach, meaning "spirit."
- The ruach in turn is attached to the neshamah; literally God's "breath."
- This neshamah is eventually (through two more levels) attached to the Shechina, a manifestation of God.
We have explained at great length in our essay on the previous Torah portion, Pikudei, what we mean when we declare that the manifestation of God's Presence called the Shechina 'resides' in the Temple. Our thesis was that as the Temple is a part of the physical world, the Presence of God, clearly a spiritual phenomenon, couldn't possibly reside in it directly. The resting place of the Shechina is the human soul. When the spiritual attachment of the human soul to the Shechina is widespread and intense, the attachment can be 'felt' in tangible terms and it is this 'attachment' that is detectable in the Temple. We shall now attempt to bring this idea closer to earth.
By focusing his life on attaching his Nefesh Habehamit, or his 'life force', to his Nefesh Elokit, his Divine soul, and extending the connection through the levels of the Divine soul all the way up to the Shechina, man has the ability to connect the entire physical world, of which his animal soul is the highest expression, directly to the Presence of God. The completion of this connection provides the Shechina with a spiritual highway that connects the Heavenly throne with the physical world. The Shechina can use this highway to make God's Presence manifest in our world.
But how do we attach our Nefesh Habehamit to our Nefesh Elokit first of all, and then how can we extend the connection through the levels of the Nefesh Elokit up to the Shechina?
Our 'life force' is not only the expression of our Nefesh Habehamit; it is also the concentrated essence of the physical world. In order to live, we must eat and drink, we must have shelter and clothing etc.; we extract innumerable inputs from the physical world to keep ourselves alive. The life force that attaches to our blood and circulates through our bodies is not only an expression of our Nefesh Habehamit; it is also the distilled essence of all the resources of the physical world necessary to sustain it.
When we apply the energy provided by this life force to carry out the commandments of the Torah, we transform the essence of the physical world into a living expression of the Torah's teachings. But while we take the energy to carry out the Torah's commandments from the physical world, the thrust and the enthusiasm to fulfill mitzvoth is generated by our Divine souls. The animal soul feels no compulsion to observe the commandments – why would it? - Its requirements can only be satisfied by inputs that are extracted from the physical world.
This means that when we use our life force to carry out the dictates of the Torah, we actually turn our animal souls into vehicles of expression for our Divine souls. As the Nefesh Habehamit, the 'life force' is also the distilled essence of the physical world, the entire physical world becomes subsumed to man's Divine soul through the fulfillment of the Torah's commandments. The subjugation of the animal portion of man to his Godly part is the phenomenon that fuses the various parts of the soul to one another; we can now appreciate why it is necessary to observe the mitzvoth if we desire the Shechina to be a Presence in the physical world.
But what if the animal soul refuses to submit to its spiritual counterpart? What if it drives its owner to violate the commandments of the Torah in the pursuit of its own interests, the consumption of more of the inputs of the physical world?
As described above, both our souls have a nefesh portion – the battle between them takes place on the level playing field of nefesh versus nefesh - as both are in charge of the movements of the self same physical body, when the animal soul refuses to bend to the Divine soul, the opposite must happen. The Nefesh Elokit is subjugated to the Nefesh Habehamit and becomes its captive.
As the Nefesh Elokit starts to fuse with the Nefesh Habehamit the link between the Nefesh Elokit and the higher level of ruach is weakened; the highest level of the Divine soul, the neshama detaches almost entirely from any connection with the level of nefesh; the highway that connects the physical world to the Shechina is blocked; there is no way for the presence of God to manifest itself in the physical world.
The Presence of the Shechina departs from the Temple, which loses its spiritual significance and becomes merely another physical building. If the process of detachment is not reversed within a reasonable period the Temple is eventually destroyed. It cannot survive as a purely physical artifact.
The human mind and the human heart serve as the battleground for the war that rages between the two souls - the animal and the Divine. Man's life on earth is a series of battles; he is constantly forced to choose to identify himself with one or another of his two souls.
STAGES OF HUMAN DEVELOPMENT
To fully round out the picture of the way the process of the integration of the different portions of the soul operates it is helpful to approach it in the context of the three basic stages of human development with which we are all familiar.
An adult human being is generally in control of his own life and is therefore charged with the duty of setting a course for himself. An adult comes to terms with the world around him through a combination of things. He looks at the world through the window of his character and attitudes; a looking glass that was formed by forces beyond his control; the combination of heredity and environment that is unique to him. But his judgments are voluntary; they are made in the light of the knowledge he has assembled through his life experience. He reaches decisions regarding the purpose and aim of his life, and marshals his forces and directs his activities accordingly. The pattern of our lives as adults is justifiably regarded as accurate expressions of who we really are.
Children cannot fully express their understanding in their lives. They have not yet developed the maturity or self-discipline to subject their behavior to their understanding; it is for this reason that children's lives are generally managed by others, hopefully by concerned and mature adults. But while children's lives cannot demonstrate their views, they express their basic characters perfectly.
Precisely because of his lack of self-control, the child is driven by his innate desires and ambitions, ruled by his emotions. It is not that children have feeble minds; on the contrary, we are at the very peak of our ability to absorb new information at this stage of our lives. But a child's mind is not the faculty that he expresses in his life; at this stage of development we can only express our hearts. If adult behavior is a window to understanding and intelligence, than childhood can be regarded as a display of the workings of the heart.
An infant cannot even express his heart. The infant is entirely ruled by the intensity of his life force. This stage of our development is the one in which we demonstrate the least amount of individuality. All infants are pretty much alike and express the very same things in much the same way. When they are want something they cry, and when their needs are satisfied they gurgle and smile.
R' Chaim of Volozhin, the famous student of the Gaon of Vilna, explains in his work Nefesh HaChaim (Gate 1) that the neshama expresses itself in our ideas and thoughts, the ruach attaches itself to our emotions and our speech, and the nefesh can only express itself through our actions. Spiritually speaking, we are adults, teen-agers and infants simultaneously throughout our lives on different levels.
When a person fulfills a Torah commandment on the highest level - with full understanding of what he is doing and why his deed is significant in the eyes of God - his entire soul is able to express itself in his act. (His neshama fuses with his thoughts, his ruach fuses with the emotion he invests, and his nefesh is expressed in the actual physical performance.) He is a spiritual adult, a person worthy of respect and capable of maintaining a mature relationship with the Shechina.
When he lacks Torah knowledge and therefore spiritual understanding, he is only able to express his spiritual feelings and character through the medium of the ruach. Without spiritual understanding he cannot relate to God as a spiritual adult but he is able to maintain his relationship with God on the level of a child to his parent, which is also quite an intense spiritual bond.
But when he is unobservant, a person is considered to be totally lacking in spiritual self control and is regarded as a spiritually infant. He can feel happy or cry but cannot communicate spiritually at all. You can love an infant but there is no way to communicate intelligently with him or her.
When the Shechina bonds with a person that person becomes God's representative in the lower world. You can look at him or her and see the Divine reaction to world events. How can God allow Himself to be represented by infants, or even by children? Someone who is not on the spiritual level of Neshama is obviously unsuitable to serve as God's representative. God can only be present in the world when Jewish society has a large number of spiritual adults.
MAINTAINING THE HIGHWAY
We now have a fair degree of understanding why the unification of the Divine soul and the animal soul is necessary to allow the Shechina to penetrate into the physical world. The endurance of the Temple as a physical entity depends on the ability to permanently maintain this state of unity between the two souls. It follows that if there is a desire to preserve the Temple for any length of time, we have to provide man with a mechanism that allows him to re-attach the animal soul to the Divine soul when the state of unity is severed, something that is bound to happen.
"The human being who only does good and never sins does not exist on earth." (Ecclesiastes 7:20)
Slipping off the 'straight and narrow' path is the inevitable lot of man. The highway the Shechina uses to enter the world will necessarily require repeated repairs. The Temple cannot remain a permanent fixture in the physical world without a method to carry out these repairs.
Hence the need for animal sacrifices.
THE ROLE OF THE ANIMAL SACRIFICE
The life force of the sacrificial animal is a close relative of the human animal soul, the repository of the human life force. When a person buys a sacrifice, the animal life force becomes an expression of the owner's own. The money that he expended on the purchase was acquired through labor and effort generated by his own life force. The resources of the physical world that were employed to energize the owner's own animal soul supplied the energy that fueled this labor and effort.
The sacrificial animal is thus an expression of the owner's animal soul. When it is offered up on the altar to God, it is man's own animal soul - which has fused with that of the sacrifice –that is being metaphorically placed on the altar; the act of sacrifice allows it to reunite with the Shechina once again. The breach between the animal soul and the Divine soul is mended; the highway to God is repaired and the Temple can continue to function.
Of course this only happens when the sacrifice is offered properly. All sacrifices must be modeled on the Akeida of Isaac, the Binding of Isaac [Sha'rei Hoavodah, R' Yonah]; the owner has to imagine the animal as his replacement. He must regard the blood sprinkled on the altar, the innards that are burnt by the fire as substitutes for his own blood and innards; the limbs of the sacrifice as representing his own; they are the very ones that performed the improper deeds which caused the parts of his soul to separate from each other and from the Shechina.
Just like you cannot have sacrifices without a Temple, it is impossible to maintain a Temple without sacrifices.
A DIVINE SUMMONS
We are now ready to return to the little aleph of Moses.
God called to Moses. Why? If it was merely to catch his attention there is no need to record the call. The summons forms no part of the subsequent conversation; it is quite obvious that it is impossible to speak to a person without first catching his attention
Rashi (Leviticus 1:1) quotes the Sages who tell us:
This summons to Moses is mentioned to teach us that whenever God wished to impart a new command to him, He first summoned him lovingly, saying "Moses, Moses." [This is] the method of communication employed by the angels, who call each other and say, "Holy, holy, holy!" (Isaiah 1:6-7)
The call is a summons to come near; God wants to communicate with Moses from up close, not from a distance. The purpose of the call is to establish the quality of the subsequent communication, not merely to initiate it.
As we have described, coming near to God is accomplished by ascending the three steps of holiness represented by the phrase Holy, holy, holy uttered by the angels. The nefesh must ascend to the ruach, the ruach to the neshama, and the neshama must connect with the Shechina. Only thus can one speak with God face to face as it were:
"Mouth to mouth do I speak to him, in a clear vision and not in riddles, at the image of God does he gaze." (Numbers 12:8)
God desires Moses' nearness. As Moses ascends through the levels of holiness, the Shechina descends through the same levels to the physical world; it all fuses into one.
HIGHWAY TO HEAVEN
Moses ascribes his ability to climb the levels of holiness to God's summons. It is only because God draws him near that he differs from Bilaam. On his own, he would remain mired in the physical world on the spiritual level of nefesh, forced to communicate with God from such a great distance that the very connection would necessarily feel accidental. His desire to omit the Aleph does not describe the quality of the communication but is his assessment of the size of his spiritual contribution.
But God attributes His nearness to Moses to Moses' own ability to establish the highway that allows the Shechina to descend to the physical world. He insists on the use of the aleph as His assessment of the size of Moses' contribution. The Temple is a microcosm of the entire universe and all it contains, the heavens and the earth squeezed into a tiny area. Man ascends and the presence of God descends.
God tells Moses to write the word with the aleph. It is along the spiritual highway constructed by the Jewish people that God enters the physical world and summons Moses to draw near. It is due to the fact that the distance between the heavens and the earth has become reduced through human effort that Moses is able to respond to God's summons and actually manage to close a gap that is as wide as the universe.
As in all healthy relationships, each side perceives the contribution of the other as more significant than his own. Indeed there is ample room for the expression of humility here.
Jacob was the first one to envision a house containing the presence of God on earth. On that site, upon which God's Temple would eventually stand, he had a vision:
"A ladder was set earthward and its top reached heavenward. And behold! Angels of God were ascending and descending on it. And behold God was standing over him, and He said, 'I am YHVH, God of Abraham your father and God of Isaac. The ground upon which you are lying, to you will I give it and to your descendants.'" (Genesis 28: 12-13)
When Jacob awoke, he exclaimed:
"How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God and this is the gate of the heavens!" (Genesis 28:16-17)
Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin:
This ladder is none other than the soul of man. It is the force that connects the heavens to the earth and allows the angels to ascend and descend. It allows the Shechina to descend to the Holy Land, which therefore is granted to Jacob's descendants and transforms the Temple into the gates of heaven through which the prayers of the Jewish people can freely ascend.