Commentary on Parashat Vayikra, Leviticus 1:1 - 5:26
While God-talk has become more fashionable in some liberal Jewish circles, it was certainly not always the case. It is true there are still some who prefer the spirituality of rational intellectualism over mysticism and other meta-rational forms of religious exploration. I am in favor of whatever brings us closer to God and in so doing closer to ourselves, regardless of approach.
It seems to me that this controversy comes to a head from the moment we begin reading the book of Leviticus. The opening words “God called to Moses” seem to follow logically on the final verses of Exodus (where the cloud covering of the tent of meeting is a symbol of God’s presence), the flow between sections reflecting a good literary approach. But the opening words of Leviticus do not read like literature. Instead, they read like an implicit theological statement: “God calls Moses.”
Calling Out Moses
The great commentator Rashi is not surprised at the text. He claims that God always called out to Moses before speaking to him. One has to get the attention of the other before speaking to him. How else would God know that Moses is listening?
Rashi’s grandson, Rashbam, disagrees. He argues that this verse is an indication of where the conversation was to take place, not that the conversation was to take place. Rashbam posits that Moses hesitated to enter the tent until God called out to him. Both are important theological interpretive insights, but Rashbam offers us insight into the nature of community, as well.
Whether we are Moses or everyday folks, we often hesitate to enter the tent (whether symbolic of God’s presence or into the midst of the community, one of the channels through which God’s presence might flow into the world), especially if the requirement is that we must first hear the voice of God calling out to us in order to do so. Perhaps we are the ones who should invite people in and not wait for God to do so. In this way, we can help prepare others to hear the voice of God speaking in our midst.
Enough for Some, Not for All
That will be enough motivation for some; for them to act, we need only to emphasize this spiritual notion of community and the potential of connecting with God in its midst. But it will not be a sufficient motivator for all–and we can’t let people be left outside of the tent, outside of the community.
In the case of the specifics of this week’s Torah portion, if we are invited to enter the tent just so that we can listen to instructions concerning sacrifices, who would indeed be so motivated? That is why joining with the people becomes so important and why it underlies the instructions concerning sacrifices. God calls Moses, but then Moses must speak to the assembled people. He has to bring them together so that they can all hear and do–something that we learned was possible from the Torah a few weekly portions ago.
Our reasons for entering the tent do not have to be the same as the ones that Moses had, nor do they even have to be the same as those that drive our friends and family members to enter. The important thing is that all feel comfortable not only entering the tent to hear God’s voice, but that they return feeling capable of reentering and inviting outsiders in as well.
Pronunced: TORE-uh, Origin: Hebrew, the Five Books of Moses.