Between the Lines—Va-yikra

Weekly Midrash Learning with Rabbi David Levy


ויקרא פרק א פסוק א

וַיִּקְרָא אֶל מֹשֶׁה וַיְדַבֵּר יְהֹוָה אֵלָיו מֵאֹהֶל מוֹעֵד לֵאמֹר:

Leviticus 1:1
And the Lord called unto Moses, and spoke unto him out of the tent of meeting, saying:

תלמוד בבלי מסכת יומא דף ד עמוד ב

ויקרא אל משה וידבר למה הקדים קריאה לדיבור? לימדה תורה דרך ארץ, שלא יאמר אדם דבר לחבירו אלא אם כן קורהו. מסייע ליה לרבי חנינא, דאמר רבי חנינא: לא יאמר אדם דבר לחבירו אלא אם כן קורהו.

Babylonian Talmud Yoma 4
And the Lord called unto Moses, and spoke unto him; why does Scripture mention the call before the speech?—The Torah teaches us good manners: a man should not address his neighbor without having first called him. This supports the view of R. Hanina, for R. Hanina said: No man shall speak to his neighbor unless he calls him first to speak to him.


I never cease to be amazed by the Rabbis. The prolific scholars of the Talmud never miss an opportunity to learn something new from the text. Here in the opening words of the book of Leviticus, we have a redundancy in language that would not seem noteworthy to most of us: the Lord "called" unto Moses and the Lord "spoke" unto him. We have here two verbs to indicate God's communication with Moses. The Rabbis are keenly aware that in other places, the Bible is as stingy with words as to leave out major details, such as what Cain said to Abel at their fateful meeting in the field. This leads them to seek out meaning in this simple verbosity. The Torah, to their minds, doesn't simply fling extra verbs here and there. There must be a lesson in this choice.

Even better than the Rabbis' impulse to "derash" is the lesson they tease out here. In the tractate of Yoma, the Rabbis ask; "Why does the scripture mention the call before the speech?" The

Rabbis teach that there is a lesson of courtesy at play here; one does not simply begin a conversation with someone without calling to them first.

It seems that this simple lesson of courtesy has great relevance to us today, particularly in the realm of public discourse. Even though God's interaction with Moses is positive, I think we can learn from our parashah about how we handle ourselves in debates. In our age of social media, we can communicate to a wide audience with just the push of a button. However, we must expand our sense of courtesy in concert with this progress. We must reach out and call to people personally before we "talk" to them publicly. The visibility of status updates and tweets, combined with the sense of distance created by a screen, make it all too easy to attack a person or institution. This form of "speech" is a public declaration to countless others under the guise of engaging in dialogue—the Talmud seems to counsel, that before we make a big public statement, we ought to reach out directly first. After all, God was speaking to Moses in the most public forum of all, the Torah, but God had the courtesy to call Moses first.