With this week’s Torah portion, we begin the third book of the Torah known in English as Leviticus, due to its dealing primarily with the Levites and their service in the Temple. The colloquial Hebrew name for the book, however, comes from the name of the Torah portion of the week, the first word of the book, Vayikra.
With this first word, as innocent as it may seem, the Torah conveys a profound message. The Hebrew word “vayikra,” describing how God called out to Moses, is written in the Torah with a small letter alef, almost as if the letter never existed. The standard-size letters spell out the word “vayiker,” which connotes a chance encounter, an accidental meeting. In contrast, vayikra refers to an active call, a summons.
Rashi offers one of many explanations for this anomaly, suggesting that the small alef is precisely meant to contrast the word vayikra with vayiker. All of God’s communications with Moses, Rashi says, were preceded by God actively calling out to Moses – vayikra, which is a term of endearment. In contrast, God appears to the prophets of the nations of the world in chance encounters (as Rashi explains, this was personified by Balaam).
On a basic level, we are being taught that God’s communication with Moses was one of endearment and intimacy, where God called out to Moses by name before speaking with him. Rather than a chance, casual conversation, this was one which was initiated by God Himself. Moses was invited to the discussion (vayikra) rather than merely stumbling upon it (vayiker).
Upon further reflection, however, there appears to be a deeper point here.
Moses stood before God with a job to do. He was the spiritual leader of the Israelites. In this capacity, it was his task to transmit to the people God’s wishes and commands. He was, in a sense, a glorified messenger. One would think that such a position wouldn’t lend itself to an intimate, personal relationship. Vayikra tells us this was not the case.
The calling out to Moses is an expression of intimacy. It gives the relationship a personal touch, beyond one of an employer and their messenger. While the task itself Moses was called on to fulfill was one which was “professional” in nature, the conversation was one which was profoundly personal – God calls out to Moses now not just in his capacity as the transmitter of the tradition, but simply because he is Moses.
In all of our relationships, with God, our friends, family, or fellow Jews, passion and principles often run deep. All of us are firmly entrenched in how we think and feel and what we believe. From the dialogue between Moses and God we learn that the substance of those principles possesses great meaning, but that just as meaningful are the relationships themselves. Each relationship, particularly with the Divine, brings with it tasks and responsibilities that we must faithfully discharge in order to continue to cultivate that relationship, but those tasks should never be performed as rote, monotonous, mundane chores, or even as merely tasks an employer would give to their worker. They should be approached as opportunities to foster a deeper, more profound, more meaningful relationship, in the spirit of “vayikra.”
In just over one week we will usher in Passover. No holiday on the Jewish calendar brings with it the detail and nuance that Passover does. While the potential exists to view these tasks, whether it’s the pre-Pesach prep or the long Seder nights, as chores, Vayikra teaches us to remember that on the other side of those tasks is a relationship – with the Divine, with generations past, and with the many generations to come.