Rabbi David Evan Markus
The opening of Torah’s middle book, Vayikra (Leviticus), asks a hidden question that is perhaps the most important question in Jewish spiritual life.
Torah’s story of liberation and wandering goes on hiatus, shifting to our ancestors’ ancient cultic rites. Before relaying that narrative, Torah begins: “God called to Moses and spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting” (Lev. 1:1). The rabbis wondered, “Why does Torah say that God called to Moses? Shouldn’t it be enough that God spoke to Moses?”
Rashbam (Shlomo ben Meir, 1085-1158), grandson of Rashi (Shlomo Yitzchaki, 1040-1105), observed that in Exodus, God “called” to Moses from the Burning Bush that Moses could approach no closer (Ex. 3:4), and “called” to Moses from within Mount Sinai where Moses could not penetrate (Ex. 19:3). Similarly, Moses couldn’t enter the Tent of Meeting amidst God’s presence (Ex. 40:35), and now God “called” Moses from the Tent of Meeting. Rashbam concludes that God “called” Moses from the very places Moses couldn’t go: God “speaks” from anywhere, but “calls” from places that are off-limits.
But the “call” itself isn’t off-limits. The Hebrew root kra, as in Vayikra (“God “called”), also means “cry” – an emotive act that draws in and reaches out. In Kriyat Torah, we don’t just “read” Torah: we “cry” Torah – we call it out, drawing holy wisdom and ourselves into each other. In like fashion, maybe we can understand God “calling” as a crying out, bridging the distance between us and a quality of holiness that otherwise might seem off-limits.
In this way, Vayikra asks: From where does God call today? How do holiness and spiritual wisdom call to each of us in our own lives, and how do we respond? We long ago left Sinai and outgrew the Tent of Meeting, but as Rashbam wrote, God kept calling along the way – first from the Burning Bush, then from Sinai, then from the Tent of Meeting. Why not also from our own holy places – synagogues, dinner tables, nature hikes, museums, yoga mats, salons – wherever we gather with the intention to connect? Maybe God is calling you right now, maybe from the very place that seems most off-limits. If you stopped to listen, what might you hear?