Rabbi Benji Stanley – 16 March 2018
Some might not relish starting the book of Vayikra. The third book of the Torah is light on narrative and full of the nitty-gritty laws of the sacrifices, and of a number of procedures that could be dismissed as dull and out of date. As the weeks progress, we will learn, for example, over many chapters, how the community must address the rotting spread of tzara’at in one’s skin or house. Furthermore, the first verses of Vayikra throw us right into sacrificial detail:
The Eternal called to Moses and spoke to him from the tent of meeting, saying: “Speak to the Israelite people, and say to them: When any of you presents an offering of cattle to the Eternal, he shall choose his offering from the herd or from the flock”. (Vayikra 1:1-2, JPS trans. adapted)
I have heard one Liberal Jew wonder whether we should read the book of Vayikra in our shuls at all. He hoped we might just skip it.
Yet, Rashi’s first comment on the book is a beautiful key that might open for us so much of the content of the Torah and its middle book- it’s a comment that might teach us how to read. Rashi wonders why our opening verse tells us that the Eternal called to Moses. The opening word “Vayikra”, “and He called”, could be considered redundant. The verse could have just said, “The Eternal….spoke to him from the Tent of meeting”, without any “calling” at all. Rashi draws upon the early Rabbinic commentary of Sifra to explain this seeming redundancy.
.(‘ויקרא אל משה. לְכָל דִּבְּרוֹת וּלְכָל אֲמִירוֹת וּלְכָל צִוּוּיִים קָדְמָה קְרִיאָה, לְשׁוֹן חִבָּה, לָשׁוֹן שֶׁמַּלְאֲכֵי הַשָּׁרֵת מִשְׁתַּמְּשִׁין בּוֹ, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר וְקָרָא זֶה אֶל זֶה (ישעיהו ו
“He called to Moses”. All instances of speaking or saying or commanding [of God to Moses] are preceded by “calling”. This is lashon hiba, the language of dearness, the very language that the ministering angels use, as it says (in Isaiah chapter 6) “V’kara zeh el zeh, each called to each other”.
The comment is technically brilliant, as it points to the fact that at two previous crucial moments the Eternal did call Moses: in Exodus 19:3, just before world-changing, communal Revelation, “the Lord called to him from the mountain”; and before that, just before God commands Moses to become the social activist of his time, when they’re just beginning to get to know each other, “the Ultimate called to him from amidst the bush” (Exodus 3:4).
What can we learn from this lashon hiba, the fact that the call of personal intimacy frequently proceeds life-changing learning? We can realise that the learning that truly changes us is embedded in relationships, that it is preceded by the gentle voice of one being to another. Indeed, I miss my father, Jack Stanley (z’l), who passed away just more than a year ago. I learnt so much from him ultimately because of the warm way he used to call my name… “Hey Benj”. We can learn to treat ancient texts and the book of Vayikra, with love, teasing out the laws, as utterances from one being to another, and asking, what is the tone and timbre of the voice, the desire and possible lesson behind the language? We can forge relationships in our community in which words of Torah come alive and help us live. Everything we do in our synagogues, our Torah breakfasts, our comforting the bereaved, our celebrations of births, and our services, can embed learning in love, as we turn to one another and search for the language of love, lashon hiba, just like the angels.
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