Parshat Vayikra: God seeking man, and man seeking God
God doesn’t merely expect people to turn to Him. He makes an overture to them and calls out to them. God is not passive in this world – He reveals his presence.
By Rabbi Eliahu Birnbaum, Director of the Beren-Amiel and Straus-Amiel Emissary Training Programs
The third book of the Five Books of Moses opens with the word ‘Vayikra’, a word with a broad and profound connotation. The name of this book in Hebrew is also ‘Vayikra,’ based on the first word in the text, though it is called Leviticus in other languages, based on a Greek word meaning “the work of the Levites.” Parshat Vayikra begins with Hashem appealing to Moshe on a personal level, using a rather amiable expression: “And He called unto Moses.”
“And He called to Moses, and the Lord spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting, saying…” What does this appeal mean? On the simplest level, Hashem was making contact with Moses by opening a channel of communication for transmitting information and content. Yet what’s particularly important about Hashem’s appeal isn’t the language used, but rather, the relationship between the two sides in this dialogue.
I feel that there’s something unique and wonderful about the word ‘Vayikra.’ It isn’t coincidental that this book begins with an appeal. It does so to teach us one of the basic principles of Jewish faith. None other than the Holy One, Blessed Be He appeals to Moses. God doesn’t merely expect people to turn to him – He makes an overture to them and calls out to them. As we learn from the Midrash, Hashem contacts Moses directly. At first, He calls out, and then, He speaks:
“And He called out to Moses, and not [as He called out to] Abraham, for [in the case of] Abraham, it is written: ‘And the angel of Hashem called out to Abraham.’ The angel calls out, and ‘the speech spoke.’ Here, however, R. Abin said: the Holy One, Blessed Be He, said: I am the one who called out, and I am the one who spoke, as it is said (in Isaiah 48): ‘I, yea I spoke, I even called him, I brought him, and his way prospered.’” (Shmot Rabbah,1:9)
The relationship is seemingly mutual. People have the power to seek out Hashem, call out to Him, and speak to Him, though the divine presence is also active and sets out to seek man, call out to him and converse with him.
Interestingly, Hashem’s appeal has an organized structure: the appeal comes first, and then, the talking. The Gemara explains: “Why does the verse mention calling before speaking, and God did not speak to him at the outset? The Torah is teaching etiquette: A person should not say anything to another unless the other calls him first.” (The Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Yoma, page 4b)
The Book of Leviticus teaches us that Hashem is not strictly confined to the world of halacha. He doesn’t simply sit in heaven or a royal palace. The Holy One, Blessed Be He, created the world and is present in this world. He reveals his presence in this world through ‘Vayikra,’ i.e. by calling out to man, and through ‘הayedaber’ – and He spoke – i.e. Hashem spoke in a personal tone: “Then Hashem would speak to Moses face to face, as a man would speak to his companion” (Exodus 33:11). The Holy One, Blessed Be He, is the God of history. He is interconnected with humanity. He is part of history, and He cares about mankind. Even before man calls out to Hashem, Hashem calls out to man, reveals Himself to man, and speaks to him. Hashem’s appeal to man isn’t confined to merely the historical and transcendental levels – it’s a face-to-face encounter. Judaism believes that the encounter with divinity isn’t a negation of either divinity or humanness when something new is created. Rather, it is a way toward forging a deep spiritual partnership.
In Parshat Vayikra, Hashem turns to man, and each of these appeals also involves a choice – a person’s choice to accept this appeal. However, to hear Hashem’s appeal, you need to listen, and to be sensitive. At times, a person can be both blind and deaf to an appeal from heaven. We need to synchronize our earthly frequencies to receive messages from God, in order to hear and listen to His appeal and to what He is saying to us.
I feel that this model for the relationship between God and human beings can also be an appropriate model for interpersonal relationships. I find it disheartening that for Israeli society and the Jewish people in the Diaspora, the truth has become a tribal matter. We have come to live in separate societies, and each of us has become preoccupied with our own worlds and our own beliefs and opinions. We never stop to look at those who are unlike us or think or behave differently, and we never call out to them. I believe that if we adopt the divine model embodied by the words Vayikra and Vayyedaber, and if we begin calling out and getting to know each other, if we start talking, hearing, and listening to each other, we’ll be on our way to building an exemplary society and a strong Jewish people, even if we don’t all think or believe in the same views or values.