M'oray Ha'Aish: Vayikra - And He Called
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Vayikra(Leviticus 1-5)

Vayikra - And He Called

The Book of Leviticus ostensible marks a clear new beginning. A glance at Leviticus reveals a book quite different from the other books of the Torah.

Most notable is the dearth of narrative: This book is far more technically minded than interested in telling stories.

Leviticus is not a chronological continuation, but it may be seen as a thematic continuation.

Furthermore, the chronological thread, which had been a constant from Genesis, seems lost, and does not pick up until the Book of Numbers which follows.

However, even if Leviticus is not a chronological continuation, it may be seen as a thematic continuation. An analysis of the very beginning of the book will strengthen this understanding.

The book begins with a difficult verse:

And [He] called to Moses, and God spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting, saying... (Leviticus 1:1)

The verse is uneven. Though contextually clear, linguistically the text is obscure. Moses is called, though we are not told by whom. Of course, we believe that the caller is God. The text adds that God spoke to Moses from the Tent. One editing the text would have produced a simpler verse: "God spoke to Moses in the Tent of Meeting". Yet this is not what the text says. Additionally, the text has another oddity: The first verse is written with a letter of abnormal size -- the Aleph in vayikra (meaning "and He called") is written in tiny script.

These idiosyncrasies combine to make a difficult verse, and therefore a difficult introduction to the book.

 

* * *

 

WORDS OF ENDEARMENT

Rashi addresses the first question, yet seems to exacerbate the second, explaining that the "calling" is a sign of love and endearment. The angels, who are not victims of human temperament and jealousy, says Rashi, call to one another with love as we learn from Isaiah:

Above stood the seraphim ... And one called to another, and said, "Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord of Hosts; the whole earth is full of His glory." (Isaiah 6:1-3)

And even though we are not accustomed to the form that introduces the Book of Leviticus, this verse should serve as an archetype for all communication with Moses.

The Torah thus describes how God calls out to Moses with love.

Rashi notes that when God addresses the evil Bilaam, the Torah writes vayikar a term of enmity which implies terseness of speech and, therefore, disdain (see Rashi's comments Leviticus 1:1, and Numbers 23:4). The Torah thus describes how God calls out to Moses – vayikra -- with love, in contra-distinction to the way that God communicated with Bilaam.

Our second question is exacerbated by Rashi's comments, for if the entire purpose of this phrase was to illustrate God's love for Moses and the extraordinary distinction between this communication and the communication with Bilaam, why is the Aleph written small, in effect causing that word to read vayikar, just as in the case of Bilaam?

The Ba'al Haturim explains that this was Moses's choice: Out of modesty, he thought that the introduction should be no different from God's speech to Bilaam. Therefore, in a compromise position, God had Moses write the Aleph small. Why, here and now, would Moses suddenly be overwhelmed by this sense of humility? We know that Moses was the most modest of men, yet this does not explain Moses's insistence at this particular juncture.

A teaching of the great Kabbalist, Rabbi Yitzchak Luria, better known as "the Ari," may explain the timing. The reason that the Aleph was written small at this juncture is that the "calling" itself was somewhat defective. God called Moses from a perspective of limitation. The Ari explains that this calling follows the sin of the Golden Calf, after man had lost some of his stature. This idea is based on a teaching in the Zohar, which notes that while Leviticus begins with a small Aleph, the Book of Chronicles begins with a larger-than-normal Aleph in the word Adam:

Adam, Seth, Enosh. (1 Chronicles 1:1)

At the dawn of creation, man enjoyed an unparalleled stature. The world was brand new, and man was created in the image of God. Sin changed man's stature, and subsequent generations suffered the loss of this luster. The best opportunity for man to regain that which was lost was at Sinai. According to the Sages, that is exactly what transpired, but man fell again as a result of sin of the Golden Calf. The Aleph is small once again.

 

* * *

 

MOSES' HUMILITY

The Sfat Emet explains that Moses, who was incredibly modest, had always seen his own leadership through jaundiced eyes. From the outset, he felt unworthy, but he became convinced that the people needed him, and for that reason alone he took up his role. Yet Moses saw himself as merely an extension of his people. If the people had failed with the Golden Calf, then Moses, as an individual, saw himself as no better than Bilaam, and therefore "deserving" of the same type of speech.

Let us return to the first textual peculiarity: The text does not indicate who calls Moses, and the phrasing of this verse is very uneven.

The Sforno sees a direct parallel to this verse at the end of Parshat Mishpatim when Moses is called up Mount Sinai in order to receive the Torah. Moses was to be on high for forty days and nights. When Moses ascends the mountain, he remains for six days on the summit before proceeding.

And Moses went up into the Mount, and a cloud covered the Mount. And the glory of the Lord abode upon Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it six days; and [He] called to Moses on the seventh day from the midst of the cloud. (Exodus 24:15-16)

It seems as if Moses was unable to penetrate the cloud -- or glory of God -- for the holiness was too extreme. A similar description is used when the Tabernacle is built:

Then a cloud covered the Tent of Meeting, and the glory of the Lord filled the Tabernacle. And Moses was not able to enter into the Tent of Meeting, because the cloud abode on it, and the glory of the Lord filled the Tabernacle.(Exodus 40:34-36)

As Moses was unable to enter the glory on Mount Sinai until he was called, so, too, at the dedication of the Tabernacle, Moses was unable to enter until he was called. In the case of Mount Sinai, Moses is called in the very same verse, while in the case of the Tabernacle, Moses is called in the next paragraph, which happens be the first paragraph of a new book. This being the case, we clearly see how the first phrase in Leviticus continues, almost mid-sentence, the last verses of the Book of Exodus.

 

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NATURE OF THE CALLING

This also provides insight as to "what" called Moses, and the nature of this calling. The verse reads:

And [He] called to Moses, and God spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting, saying... (Leviticus 1:1)

The calling has no content, unlike the speech which immediately follows. This was the reason that Rashi declared that there must be a different reason for the use of this anomalous form -- namely God's love for Moses. However, we must recall how Exodus ends, with the Tabernacle fully constructed and the glory of God descended, with Moses and the people of Israel anxiously awaiting some sign that entry into the Tabernacle is possible.

The Zohar describes the scene as a wedding day:

And Moses was not able to enter into the Tent of Meeting, because the cloud abode thereon. For the reason that She was then arraying herself in Her finery as a woman prepares and bedecks herself to receive her husband; and at such a moment it is unseemly for the husband to enter unto her. Thus Moses was not able to enter into the Tent of Meeting..." (Zohar, Exodus 235b)

The Tabernacle was built, but it was not yet the time for intimacy. Leviticus begins with the intimacy, with the call of God -- or the Shechina, the glory of God -- to Moses. Now Moses may enter the Tabernacle.

The Book of Leviticus is primarily concerned with this newfound intimacy.

Just as receiving the Torah required a preparation of 6 days before Moses could enter, the dedication of the Tabernacle required similar preparation. The Book of Leviticus is primarily concerned with this newfound intimacy and this is evident in the laws concerning sacrifices, Leviticus's main subject. The basic principle of the korban, "sacrifice," is rooted in the word karov, meaning "to come close, to be intimate." The korban represents the possibility for man to heal his damaged relationship with God, to come close, to rekindle what has been dimmed by sin.

 

* * *

 

INTIMACY WITH GOD

True intimacy with God is difficult. After all, God who is infinite, unknowable, ineffable, is not exactly accessible. The verse which Rashi cited from Isaiah describing the angels deals with this problem:

And one called to another, and said, "Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord of Hosts; the whole earth is full of His glory." (Isaiah 6:1-3)

The term "holy" means separate. The angels call to one another and declare that God is completely "separate separate separate," completely transcendent, yet God's glory fills this earth. The angels know that God is both completely transcendent, yet imminent. This profound paradox is the heart of the Jewish experience. God is unknowable yet available, beyond imagination yet at my side. The result of accepting this mystery is that the "House filled with smoke". The Shechina comes down and envelops the Tabernacle.

This is the starting point of Leviticus. The glory of God filled the Tabernacle. The transcendent God has brought His glory down to earth. This glory is so impressive that the Tabernacle cannot be penetrated. Now, God limits infinity one more step and calls Moses from the midst of the Tabernacle.

Moses felt that he was unworthy of direct contact with the Shechina.

Moses, for his part, underwent a similar process.

He feels that he is unworthy of direct contact with the Shechina, rather than being carried away with his own impressive record. (After all, Moses had led the Jews from Egypt, Moses climbed Mount Sinai and brought the Torah to earth, Moses "wrestled" with God to save the people at the moment of their infamy.) Yet Moses feels inadequate in the face of the glory of God.

Paradoxically, this modesty is what makes Moses a spiritual giant, and all the more attractive as a leader.

Moses's self-limitation mirrored God's self-limitation. For this reason the small Aleph remained, as a clue, a key which makes God accessible: We must limit our tendency to self-aggrandizement.

When man becomes intoxicated with his own self-worth, he feels that he is a "self-made man," and begins to worship his "creator". Such a man cannot find God. Only a man who is cognizant that God is transcendent (yet His glory fills the earth) can approach the Infinite. Moreover, to such a man, the Infinite will call out, inviting him to intimacy.

God lovingly called to Moses, who deserved this calling because he thought he did not. The angels lovingly call out to one another, and we repeat the words of the angels on a daily basis. But for us this should not be merely a doxology; we must listen to the calling, for the result is the glory of God filling the earth and intimacy with Divine.

Published: March 24, 2001

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Visitor Comments: 3

(3) Anonymous, March 23, 2012 12:08 AM

very thoughtful and tthougt provoking

I found that this commentary was very interesting with very important implications for further study. The writer carefully enunciates the important issues (I think)in this difficult parsha, pointing out the "out of context" switch from history/narrative to explicit rules and difections for sacrifice. I also liked the way he pulled it together, i.e. preparing the tabernacle - and; the people -. Makesme want to reread and study further. Thank you, blessings.

(2) Snejana Coles, March 14, 2010 11:51 AM

This is such a good article

It's what been missing from this world that makes it so welcome to have artciles from Aish HaTorah to illumine the darkened 21st century technoway. It deeply touched my soul on a level you can never get from the obvious visible things Thank Rabbi Khan for that insightful passage,

(1) Kim Campbell, March 16, 2002 12:00 AM

Thank you Rabbi Ari.

This is so wonderful. I struggle each Shabbat to read the Parasha in Hebrew on my own and read the commentary from the Chumash. As you expound on each I learn so much more. Thank you for taking the time to help one alone to learn more completely.

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