Nomi BermanMatan Torah: Answering God’s Call

Nomi Berman
ssociate Director, Midreshet Lindenbaum

וּמשֶׁה עָלָה אֶל הָאֱלֹהִים וַיִּקְרָא אֵלָיו יְהֹוָה מִן הָהָר לֵאמֹר כֹּה תֹאמַר לְבֵית יַעֲקֹב וְתַגֵּיד לִבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל: אַתֶּם רְאִיתֶם אֲשֶׁר עָשִׂיתִי לְמִצְרָיִם וָאֶשָּׂא אֶתְכֶם עַל כַּנְפֵי נְשָׁרִים וָאָבִא אֶתְכֶם אֵלָי: וְעַתָּה אִם שָׁמוֹעַ תִּשְׁמְעוּ בְּקֹלִי וּשְׁמַרְתֶּם אֶת בְּרִיתִי וִהְיִיתֶם לִי סְגֻלָּה מִכָּל הָעַמִּים כִּי לִי כָּל הָאָרֶץ: וְאַתֶּם תִּהְיוּ לִי מַמְלֶכֶת כֹּהֲנִים וְגוֹי קָדוֹשׁ אֵלֶּה הַדְּבָרִים אֲשֶׁר תְּדַבֵּר אֶל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל:  (שמות יט:ג-ו) 

3 And Moses went up unto God, and the LORD called unto him out of the mountain, saying: ‘Thus shalt thou say to the house of Jacob, and tell the children of Israel: 4 Ye have seen what I did unto the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings, and brought you unto Myself. 5 Now therefore, if ye will hearken unto My voice indeed, and keep My covenant, then ye shall be Mine own treasure from among all peoples; for all the earth is Mine; 6 and ye shall be unto Me a kingdom of priests, and a holy nation. These are the words which thou shalt speak unto the children of Israel.’

The poetic opening to Matan Torah begins with a relatively common verb – “vayikra.” Moshe ascends to God and God calls to Moshe.

A very basic question: what does “vayikra” mean? If we compare, for instance, to Bereishit 49:1, we will find the verb “vayikra” in a context in which Yaakov is summoning his sons before blessing them.   This makes sense in human context; his sons were not physically present.  In order to speak with them he had to first gather them and then share his blessings. But what does it mean in divine context?  God, after all, does not need to speak with Moshe in a specific location.  Indeed, God has already communicated with Moshe extensively in the absolutely profane environment of Egypt.  Why is there a need for a prefatory summoning?

The key to understanding this is in the two other instances where Hashem “calls” Moshe.

The first occurrence is, not surprisingly, as the preface to Moshe’s very first prophecy at the burning bush.

וַיֵּרָא מַלְאַךְ יְהֹוָה אֵלָיו בְּלַבַּת אֵשׁ מִתּוֹךְ הַסְּנֶה וַיַּרְא וְהִנֵּה הַסְּנֶה בֹּעֵר בָּאֵשׁ וְהַסְּנֶה אֵינֶנּוּ אֻכָּל: וַיֹּאמֶר משֶׁה אָסֻרָה נָּא וְאֶרְאֶה אֶת הַמַּרְאֶה הַגָּדֹל הַזֶּה מַדּוּעַ לֹא יִבְעַר הַסְּנֶה: וַיַּרְא יְהֹוָה כִּי סָר לִרְאוֹת וַיִּקְרָא אֵלָיו אֱלֹהִים מִתּוֹךְ הַסְּנֶה וַיֹּאמֶר משֶׁה משֶׁה וַיֹּאמֶר הִנֵּנִי: (שמות ג: ב-ד) 

2 And the angel of the LORD appeared unto him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush; and he looked, and, behold, the bush burned with fire, and the bush was not consumed. 3 And Moses said: ‘I will turn aside now, and see this great sight, why the bush is not burnt.’ 4 And when the LORD saw that he turned aside to see, God called unto him out of the midst of the bush, and said: ‘Moses, Moses.’ And he said: ‘Here am I.’

This is Moshe’s first experience with prophecy.  Before he can receive his actual mission, he needs to first comprehend that he is communicating with the divine!  This process of gently coaxing a young new prophet into the world of prophecy is perhaps most poignantly described in the experience of Shmuel, who, unschooled in the ways of prophecy, initially confuses God’s “voice” for Eli’s voice.

Perhaps the first case of “vayikra” at the burning bush sheds light on the second, at Har Sinai.  If God initially “calls” to Moshe to prepare him for a radically new experience, then perhaps our vayikra in Shmot 19 is also an indicator, a warning to Moshe, that once again something revolutionary is about to occur.  God’s first call gently prepared Moshe for his induction into prophecy, while this latter call signals to Moshe that God is now upping the ante.  Now is a new milestone in the history of God’s relationship with mankind; the Jewish people are about to experience a national prophecy.

Vayikra Rabba points out another commonality between the burning bush and Har Sinai.  In both instances, God speaks through fire.  This is yet another indication that these two events are unique, and perhaps the Torah employs the verb “vayikra” to mark that uniqueness.

The midrash then continues to assert that the first case of “vayikra” is a paradigm for the latter.  Just as at the burning bush God called Moshe’s name twice, so too are we to assume that the calling at Matan Torah implies a double calling of Moshe’s name. The use of the name implies intimacy.  The doubling, on the other hand, brings to mind a mother calling to her child who is about to fall, who might repeatedly call to the child, motivated here by love but also by a sense of urgency.  Equally, we are to infer that in both instances God calls Moshe’s name twice and that Moshe replies “I am here.”  Indeed, in both contexts, God is motivated by love of am yisrael and is presenting Moshe with an urgent, world-changing mission: first, to bring the Jewish people out of Egypt and then, to bring the Torah into the world.  And to both missions Moshe heeds the call with his “hineni” declaration.

The third instance of a “call” that precedes God’s speech to Moshe is in the opening to Sefer Vayikra.

Here, unexpectedly, after several parshiot of direct communication between God and Moshe which culminate with the establishment of the mishkan, God suddenly calls to Moshe again, before continuing to instruct him on the specifics of the sacrifices in the mishkan.  It is in this last and perhaps most unexpected instance of “vayikra” that the midrashim attempt to look at the three cases, both at the commonality and at the differences, to develop an understanding of the selective use of God’s call to Moshe. And from here, perhaps, we gain an insight into Hashem’s interaction with mankind in general.

It is the third example of “vayikra” which perhaps sheds the most light.  Here God is not speaking through fire.  Here, at first glance, there is no great revolution taking place.  What follows this vayikra seems to be a fairly monotonous list of sacrifices.  Yet, here too, there is a summoning which proceeds a “dibbur.”  Hence, the midrash concludes that from here we have a paradigm case.  The Torah is trying to tell us here that indeed, every single time that God addresses Moshe, we should assume the prefatory double calling of his name and the requisite reply of presence.  Indeed, every single interaction between God and Moshe, between God and mankind, is revolutionary, introduces hiddush into the world.  Each and every communication implies God’s love of am yisrael.  Each is urgent.  And for every prophecy, for every new mitzvah, Moshe – as representative of the Jewish people – must reaffirm “I am here.”

But why here?  Why does the Torah choose to emphasize that point specifically in the opening passage of the Book of Vayikra?  The midrash reminds us of the conclusion of Sefer Shmot.  God’s presence fills the mishkan and Moshe is unable to enter! It is no wonder then that Moshe needs to subsequently be called. Ironically, the completion of the mishkan has created an obstacle in the relationship between God and Moshe.  “Vayikra” seeks to overcome that obstacle; Moshe can enter the mishkan, but only after God invites him.

The Sfat Emet argues that the act of calling Moshe at this juncture functions as a metaphor.  In our relationship with God, we, like Moshe, may only approach God when invited.  Moshe as an individual was called, lovingly but urgently, at the burning bush.  Moshe is called again, this time as representative of the people, at Har Sinai.  And finally, Moshe is called to enter the mishkan, to perpetuate the intimacy of Matan Torah – but he may enter only when called.  We may engage in a relationship with God only on God’s terms, only through the vehicle of mitzvah.

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