Friday, 19 March 2010

Falling In Love With the Book of Leviticus / Vayikra

Vayikra el Moshe – And God called to Moses

Vayikra – And He called.

The book has a bad reputation.


It’s a book about sacrifices,

Its detractors treat sacrifice is a thing of little value.

We don’t tend to like relationships which make us give up things.

We prefer relationships which give us things.

We don’t like relationships which force us to change.

We would rather everything and everyone could be moulded, carved, to fit us, rather than welcome the possibility of carving away at ourselves se we fit the world around us


Sacrifice is important.

Being willing to give things up is the marker of humanity.

It’s only wild animals who know no sense of the value of delayed gratification.

To me there is something deeply moving in the notion of an entire book of the Bible driven by a notion of what we are supposed to give things up.


But there is something more.

Korban – the Hebrew word translated as sacrifice comes from the Hebrew root – to come close.

While the English term sacrifice suggests a certain asceticism – a self abnegation.

The Hebrew term suggests intimacy, relationship, closeness.

There is something almost romantic in this notion of Korban.

And if, in the lap of our modern comforts, we can’t find romance in the blood and kidneys it might be more the mere passage of time, than any failure of emotional intent on behalf of our holy texts.


I want to read, today, the first verse of the Parasha – the first verse of the entire book as a love letter.

Both in its own terms, and in the way in which the Rabbis have used the first verse, and matched this verse with an extraordinary Haftorah.


Where are we in the story?

Moses and his construction team have finished building the sanctuary, everything is placed perfectly.

But Moses can’t get in.

The book of Exodus ends with a perfectly constructed sanctuary full of the presence of the Divine and Moses outside.


Vayikra el Moshe – And God called to Moses

Midrash Tanhuma[1]

The Holy Blessed One says – it’s not right that Moses should be left out of all this, standing outside, while I am standing inside, so I’ll call to him to come in as it says –

Vayikra el Moshe – And God called to Moses

Like a doorman at some fancy club, beckoning at some shivering soul on the pavement and whisking them around the barriers and past the bouncers into the VIP area.



Rashi wanting to know why this root has been used and not amar/davar/tzav suggests that it is Lashon Hivah – the language of warmth

Vayikra means come inside, see what is here, make yourself at home in my home.


Elsewhere the Rabbis use the notion of Vayikra  - vav yod kuf aleph

To play a game at the expense of one of their favourite knocking horses Bilaam the non-Jewish prophet who is bribed into attempting to curse Israel.


What’s the difference, the second century sage Rabbi Hama Bar Hanina[2] asks, between the prophets of Israel and the prophets of the other nations?

God doesn’t reveal God’s full self to the peoples of the world, for when God calls to Bilaam

Vyikar elohim el bilaam

The translation is – God met Bilaam, but the language

Vayikar – vav yud kuf is an aleph away from the way in which God called to Moses

Vayikra has that extra aleph.

It’s a fuller willingness to encounter

I’m going to come back to this distinction between the Vayikar, lesser calling to the non-Jewish Bilaam and the Vayikra, the greater calling to Moses later.


Rabbi Yisaschar of Kfar Megido[3] goes somewhere else in search of a verse that explains the deeper intent behind the word Vayikra

It’s lashon kedushah – he says, the language of holiness.

He equates our Vayikra to a verse we know well from our liturgy.

It’s the language of the administering angels of Isaiah’s greatest theophany

Vayikra zeh el zeh vamar

And the angels called out one to another


The Rabbis are trying to get at the way this beckoning call from God to Moses – this Vayikra – both the word and the whole apparatus that follows – is a whisper designed for a chosen lover.

God is descending from aloof aloneness – alone in the Mishcan – to engage with a mere human, Moses, drawing Moses in with lashon hiva, loving entreaties.

There is a sense, in reading this verse this way, of God bearing Godself, opening Godself up to the possibility of relationship, like a suitor in the first moments of a new relationship of intimacy

A relationship which bears, of course, the possibility of being dumped, caused pain.

We’ll come back to the pain later.


In Shmot Rabba[4] Moses equates the inside of the mishkan, the place where God’s presence manifests, to the top of Mount Sinai, at the very moment of revelation.

Just as I was unable to stand on the top of the mountain in the direct presence of God’s revelation – God’s revealing – so too, thought Moses, in the minds of the Rabbis, I must be unable to enter into the Sanctuary.

God was after all quite clear in the run up to the revelation in Exodus, whoever ascended to the top of the mountain would die.

And we know, from stories yet to be told, that entering unbidden into the sanctuary of the wilderness also courts death.

So Moses waits outside.

No, says God, vayikra el Moshe, come inside.

It’s a permitted trespass into an inner sanctum.

Actually the more I think about this relational aspect of the verb Vayikra, the harder it is for me to move away from the gestalt of young suitors, at the beginning of a new relationship.

This Vayikra, this beckoning into the forbidden place is meant in the same way that a suitor might be permitted to place a first kiss on their lover.

There is a sense of danger, a risk of a slap across the face, or worse, if the invitation has been misunderstood.


So much for the opening line of the parasha


The Haftorah opens with God in full voice


I created this people, says God, that they should extol my praise.

But you have not called me, o Jacob.

The relationship has gone wrong.

God exposed Godself to the possibility of relationship with Jacob, with us,

And we let the entreaty go, we dumped God.

So far, this is standard Prophetic stuff,


But watch the Hebrew

But you have not called me, o Jacob.

Vlo oti karata yaacov


Karah – call – that word again.

The Rabbis place this failing of calling, vlo oti karata, as the Haftorah alongside the moment of romance when God called vayikrah to Moses in our Torah reading.

You have to admire the Rabbis.

It’s more than brave, there is a poignancy, a pain, a pathos even.


God calls to us, but we fail to respond.

We are not open to the possibility of relationship.

The leap of trust, the leap of faith, which God showed Moses, we don’t reciprocate.

We break the rules of relationships in formation.

The suitor flutters their eyelids at us, we are supposed to flutter our eyelids in return.

Or not.

We let the invitation drop at our feet, and look disdainfully at our prospective suitor.

Vlo oti karata yaacov

We are portrayed much like the sort of strutting buck who, as his date’s face lights up at the prospect of what might be, is already deciding that she couldn’t possibly be gorgeous enough or bright enough or whatever it is.

We are busy backing away before any possibility of true encounter becomes possible.


V’lo oti karata Yaacov.

And you didn’t call Me Jacob

Like a prospective suitor who left their first date promising to call the very next day.

We didn’t call.

And now we are being confronted by our failings.

And now God, in the mouth of Isaiah is castigating us for our false promises.

We are portrayed as the sort of person who behaves as if there is nothing out there, up in the cosmos or on the earth below, that makes it worth our bearing ourselves, of taking the leap of faith, the leap of trust that any true relationship demands.


So what kind of relationships do we enter into, these bucks who don’t, who can’t pick up the phone?

The end of the Haftorah offers an extraordinarily powerful image.

We are compared to a carpenter, a maker of idols.


From Verse 13 of Isaiah Chapter 44

The carpenter stretches out his ruler; he marks the wood out with a pencil; he fits it with chisels, and he marks it out with the compass, and he creates the figure of a man,

Yes, he kindles the wood, and bakes bread; or, he makes a god, and worships it.

He burns half of it in the fire; with this half of it he eats meat and is satisfied;

And with what is left of it he makes a god, his carved image; he falls down to it, and worships it, and prays to it.


God is not impressed

For he has shut their eyes – the Haftorah continues - that they cannot see; and their hearts, that they cannot understand.


In place of a true relationship, with all the danger, trespass and possibility of a true relationship.

We would rather carve a lover to suit out of a block of wood.

And we treat this newly carved lover in the same way we treat a piece of kindling, for indeed they share the same source.

If it keeps us warm, that’s good.

If it threatens us, demands too much from us, huh – we’ll lob it in the fire and try another one.

We’ve shut our eyes, says God, and built an idol we can see,

What we should have done the opposite.

We should have done the dramatically counter-intuitive, but gloriously powerful opposite.

We should open our eyes and enter into a relationship that which cannot be seen.

The call is clear if counter-intuitive, we need to open our eyes to that we cannot see,


We should be wary of seeing this almost two thousand year old ‘idol’ language as anything other than a most contemporary attack on our most contemporary sensibilities.

Isaiah’s symbol of the carpenter would apply today just as well.

We are all busy carving our own idols to suit our own interests.

We make gods out of those things that keep us warm, or feed our belly, or satisfy our momentary needs.

We, all too often, seek out relationships made to fit us,

Rather than leap towards relationships that cause us to change, to yield, to give up.


I want to come back to one of the Midrashim with which I began – the Midrash that suggested that the difference between the call to Moses and the call to Bilaam, was the difference between Vayikar and Vayikrah.

The difference is a single letter – an aleph.


A letter that, of course, has no sound.

The call, when it comes, the call that is so special, so pregnant with possibility of relationship, is recognisable from every other call in our existence by the sound of nothing.

We have to listen so carefully to hear that which has no sound.

We need to prime ourselves ready to fall in love, rather than swan around deaf to quiet whispers, hearing only the obvious charms of the material world.


The haftorah tells us to open our eyes to see that which cannot be seen.

The Midrash which makes such play of the extra aleph in the call of true romance tells us to open our ears to that which cannot be heard.


For this is the only way to fall in love,

To find God,

To find true relationship.


We find God,

We find love,

We find relationship

By trusting that which has no form,

By caring for things that cannot be measured

By opening our eyes to see that which cannot be seen, and

By opening our ears to hear that which cannot be heard.


This is the message of this innocuous Vayikra

This is my message to us all today.


Shabbat shalom






Aleph of a difference.

[1] Yashar 1

[2] Vay Rabbah 1:12

[3] Ad loc

[4] 19:3

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