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A Taste of Torah: Weekly Commentary from the JTS Community

Parashat Va-yikra
Leviticus 1:1 - 5:26
March 24, 2007/5 Nisan 5767

This week's commentary was written by Rabbi Matthew Berkowitz, Senior Rabbinic Fellow, JTS

This week represents new beginnings in the Jewish calendar. We welcomed the month of Nisan in which we celebrate our birth as a people and a nation; and this week we begin a new book of Torah, Leviticus, or in Hebrew, Va–yikra.. More than the significance of this liminal moment is the extent to which the notion of relationship locates itself at the core of both of these events. In so many ways, Nisan celebrates the relationship of God and Israel — God's act of covenantal fulfillment and hesed in taking the Israelites out of the land of Egypt. And similarly, the Book of Leviticus opens with a curious commentary on relationships — specifically, the relationship between God and Moses. This latter discussion is sparked by the seemingly redundant opening of this week's Torah reading. Why does Torah state that "He called to Moses" and then that "God spoke to Moses saying"? Could not Torah have been much more economical by simply opening with the second, more common introduction? What is the significance of God "calling out" to Moses?

Bible commentators are replete with answers. Nahmanides, the Spanish exegete, believes that God calls out to Moses because Moses is intimidated by this first encounter in the tent of meeting. Moses is reluctant to stand in God's presence at this moment, so God must first reach out to Moses. Other commentators suggest another compelling reason for God's "call." These exegetes believe that Moses, after having brought the people out of Egypt, having experienced Sinaitic revelation, and having built the Tabernacle, subsequently thought his work was finished. In other words, Moses was perhaps ready to retire. It is for this reason that God calls to Moses to declare to him that his work (and indeed the work of all the Israelites) is first beginning. Now that the foundation has been established, they are now given all the details of the Priestly Code and divine service in which they will now engage. The "calling out" then is a summons to continue along the journey.

Rashi, the medieval commentator from Troyes, France, offers perhaps the most compelling and poetic explanation. Rashi explains that this "calling" is "a way of expressing affection." He goes on to write that "it is the mode used by the ministering angels when they address each other, as it is said in Isaiah chapter 6, verse 3, "and one called to another and said, 'Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts.'" Rashi then reads great emotion into what we initially perceive as a simple act of "calling." It becomes an expression for God's love for Moses.

Rabbi A. M. Silbermann points out yet another interesting aspect of this "calling out" to Moses. He writes,

The phrase va–yikra el Moshe is used on three important occasions, each introducing a new revelation: 1. when God for the first time spoke to Moses at the thorn bush (Exodus 3:4), 2. when for the first time God spoke to Moses at Sinai (Exodus 19:3), and 3. when for the first time God speaks to Moses at the appointed tent, as stated here. (Silbermann, Chumash with Rashi's Commentary, 136)

"Calling out" is rooted in both relationship and revelation. God and Torah come to teach us an important lesson in communication. To encounter the other in the sanctity of relationship, one must begin by "calling out." It is the initial communication that breaks down barriers and fears and opens the pathway to love, mutual respect, and understanding. May this be a lesson for us in our personal, communal, and national spheres.

Shabbat shalom,

Rabbi Matthew L. Berkowitz


The publication and distribution of A Taste of Torah are made possible by a generous grant from Sam and Marilee Susi.