Commentary on Parashat Vayikra, Leviticus 1:1 - 5:26
Last week, we completed the Book of Exodus, with a description of the construction of the Tabernacle. This week, we begin the Book of Vayikra (Leviticus). This book begins where Exodus left off–the Tabernacle, having been built, now contains the presence of God. As we discussed a few weeks ago, this situation, according to Nachmanides, is a replication of the situation at Mount Sinai, in which God is palpably ‘there,’ and communicates his commandments to man.
After the Tabernacle
It is therefore appropriate that the first thing that happens after the Tabernacle is up and running is that God speaks to Moses–“And He called to Moses, and God spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting, saying.” What God then says to Moses is the beginning of the next major section of the Torah–the basic laws of sacrifices, the daily ritual which was to take place in the just-built Tabernacle, as well as a large number of other ritual laws pertaining to the Tabernacle, and to life beyond the Tabernacle.
The first verse, quoted above, presents a number of difficulties. The opening phrase, “Vayikra el Moshe“–“And He called to Moses,” seems to be without any specific content. The real message apparently begins with the second half of the verse: “…and God spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting, saying.” Why doesn’t the verse simply begin there, “and God spoke to him…” rather than with some unspecified “call” from God to Moses? What is the nature, content, and purpose of this call?
An additional issue is the fact that, in our traditional Torah scrolls, the last letter of the first word, the aleph at the end of Vayikra, is written much smaller than all the other letters. This is one of a number of letters in the Torah that we traditionally write smaller, or larger, than the others. Why does the tradition demand of us to write it this way? What is the significance of the small aleph?
Rashi attempts to answer our first question–why does the book begin with this apparently content-less calling of Moses by God–with the following explanation: “‘Vayikra el Moshe–and He called to Moses:’ All the words and communications and commandments were prefaced by a call, an expression of affection…but to the prophets of the non-Jewish nations God reveals Himself with an expression of happenstance, an expression of impurity, as it is written: ‘and God happened upon Balaam’ (Numbers, 23,4).” In Hebrew, this is “vayikar Elohim el Balaam.” The word for “happened upon”–vayikar–is just one letter different from the word for “called to”–vayikra.
Rashi seems to feel that the calling of Moses by God indicates a purposefulness, a kind of preparation, a readying or ordering of the upcoming interaction before the actual interaction takes place. This is seen in contradistinction to the relationship that God has with the non-Jewish prophet Balaam, in which God, without any preparation, bumps into Balaam accidentally.
This distinction between a meeting with Moses that God prepares for, or prefaces, with a call, which is characterized as a loving relationship, as opposed to a chance meeting with Balaam, which is called tameh or impure, is interesting. The way that ‘loving’ is set up as being in opposition to ‘impure’ needs elucidation, especially in view of the fact that issues of purity and impurity–tumah ve’tahara–are central to Leviticus.
In fact, all of this prefigures, in a fascinating way, some of the major concerns of the entire Book of Leviticus–the drawing of distinctions between pure and impure, permitted and prohibited. Leviticus, more than the other books of the Bible, is concerned with the creation of a world of ritual, with clear demarcations of who is meant to do or not do what, and where and when and with whom they are meant to do or not do it.
An entire set of distinctions and separations is marked out in Vayikra, distinguishing between the priest and the Israelite, the Temple and the rest of the world, the Kosher as opposed to the forbidden, the permitted as opposed to prohibited, the holy and the profane, thereby imposing an order on what is perceived as a world of chaos and disorder. These are the concerns of Vayikra.
It is therefore appropriate that the very mode of communicating these concerns–God’s talking to Moses at the beginning of the book–is itself presented as something delineated, set apart, by a call. The use of the word tameh–impure–for God’s chance meetings with Balaam is telling. That which happens by chance, rather than in a pre-determined framework, is impure.
Use of the Word “Loving”
The use of the word ‘loving’ by Rashi to describe this preparatory call is incredibly suggestive. It means that a love relationship, for Rashi, is one that demands preparation, planning, prefacing. Such a relationship is tahor–pure. The opposite, a casual, accidental relationship, is tameh–impure.
This parallels precisely the overarching concerns of Vayikra. The purity of God’s love relationship with Moses, as opposed to the impurity in God’s casual relationship with Balaam, is the result of preparation and specificity. God does not speak generally, to whomever will listen, but, rather, specifically to Moses, whom he singles out with a call. This matches the central concerns of Leviticus of separating and signifying objects and interactions as pure or impure, permitted or prohibited.
Intriguingly, the difference between the two kinds of experiences–the loving, pure individuation of Moses as opposed to the casual, impure, almost accidental relationship with Balaam–is expressed by only one letter, the aleph added to the end of the word vayikar–“and He happened upon”–that turns it into Vayikra–“and He called.”
Incredibly, brilliantly, our tradition underscores this by telling us to shrink the aleph, miniaturize it, as if to say: these distinctions are small, and not always very obvious, but they are crucial. For a relationship to move away from the casual, accidental, and impure, to the planned, prepared for, and loving, very small, but significant things have to happen.
This is the symbolism of the small aleph; how close to each other these two very different kinds of relationships can be, how hard it is to distinguish what it is that turns a relationship from the casual and impure to the signified and loving, but how crucially different from each other they really are.
Provided by the Bronfman Youth Fellowships in Israel, a summer seminar in Israel that aims to create a multi-denominational cadre of young Jewish leaders.
Pronunced: TORE-uh, Origin: Hebrew, the Five Books of Moses.