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D'var Torah: Vayikra

All over the world Jews are heaving a sigh of relief. In our annual reading of the Torah we have finally gotten through all those silly narratives and at last we are at Leviticus where we can get down to business and focus on the sacrifices and the laws pertaining thereto.

Well, maybe not everyone feels this way. But here we are, nevertheless.

What I want to do today is focus on the first line of Vayikra. I have been reading Rashi lately, the medieval French rabbi who is one of the most famous commentators on the Torah. I want to share with you a few of his insights on this verse and add a couple of my own.

Vayikra al moshe v’ya’dabair adonai ailav may’ohel mo-aid lai-mor.

There are actually three verbs denoting speech in this verse, and Rashi pays particular attention to the first of these, which is the word that gives this parashah and this book its Hebrew name: vayikra.

A typical translation is “called”: He (God) called to Moses. But Rashia> draws our attention to the connotation of the Hebrew word. Many of us are familiar with the term lashon hara, derogatory language. Rashi describes the verb vayikra as an example of lashon chiba, the language of affection. He illustrates the validity of this description with reference to the famous line from Isaiah that we repeat three times a day in the kedusha: v’kara zeh al zeh v’amar kadosh kadosh kadosh. Kara in this line and vayikra in the line we are looking at are versions of the same verb. For me this was remarkable insight about the line from Isaiah. I had always imagined that the governing image in the kedusha was of the angels massed in their legions shouting out “holy, holy, holy.” Rashi makes me see that they are not standing shoulder to shoulder and shouting but rather turning one to another, zeh al zeh, as the line suggests, and speaking with affection: kadosh, kadosh, kadosh.

I had this new image in my mind as Nigel led Shacharit. It was nice, and I recommend you try it when Deena does Musaf in a few minutes.

So, vayikra al moshe is He, that is, God, called to Moses, but the affect might be more like: “Moses, I have to tell you something.” A friendlier, more approachable, perhaps more intimate image emerges of the speaking God than we usually get in Torah.

And our verse goes on, in English, “and God spoke to him (i.e., Moses) from the Tent of Meeting.” The Tent of Meeting is the enclosed structure at center of the walled-in area that makes up the Tabernacle. The Tent contains in its outer chamber the menorah, the table for the showbread and the small altar for incense, and in the second or inner chamber, the Holy of Holies. This chamber contains the Ark of the Covenant, which is the box containing the tablets upon which are written the ten commandments, and golden cover of that box, upon which stands two winged cherubim.

Now Rashi complicates our understanding of the voice of God, which he has just characterized as affectionate. He jumps in his commentary to a verse in Numbers, 7:89, which I will give you in English: “When Moses arrived at the Tent of Meeting to speak with God, he heard the voice (ha-kol) communicating with him from atop the cover that was upon the Ark of the Covenant, from between the two cherubim.”

And then Rashi jumps to Psalm 29, which we just sang while returning the scrolls to the ark, and particularly to the lines: Kol adonai ba-koach, kol adonai b’hadar, kol adonai shavair a’razeem. “The voice of God is powerful, the voice of God is majestic; the voice of God breaks cedars.” That is the voice, says Rashi, that Moses hears in our verse, and whenever he enters the Tent of Meeting and yet it is also, at he same time, the affectionate voice of the word vayikra.

It is as if Rashi has invited us to consider for just a moment a humanized God: God on our level. Someone who wants to talk to us. Someone to whom we can talk. But then he forces us to realize that it is also the terrifying voice, the breaker of cedars. How can we, mere mortals that we are, possibly hold together this tension? Personally I think that struggling with this very tension is the great theological challenge of Judaism. We have no divine mediator to stand between us and God.

This single line, coming at the beginning of this book of laws, reminds us that the Voice, that God, need not come to the People any longer through messengers or angels, or from a burning bush or a mountain top. Now, the Voice has a place at the very center of the People, in the God-designed but man-made structure of the Mishkan, the Tabernacle. It is from this very place that it will speak to Moses, sometimes to Moses and Aaron, filling out the code of laws that will govern future behavior. I would say the God-designed but man-made code of laws that enables us to move from the sacramental moment at Sinai to an ethical history, animated not just by obedience to rules but by the pursuit of justice.

My final thought for you is this. Many of these laws are difficult for us to comprehend, let alone follow. We should try to recall, when struggling with these injunctions the affection, the solicitude, of the first word that introduces them: Vayikra—Moses, I have to tell you something.

Shabbat shalom.

—Doug Moffat
March 2012

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