From a very young age, we are conditioned to answer the question: “What do you want to be when you grow up?” We mean of course, what profession. And small children want to be firemen, princesses, police officers, presidents, and performers. Some want to be whatever their father or mother are, or another adult whom they admire. As we get older, we start to think about things we like to do, what we excel in at school, ways to make lots of money, or perhaps we are driven by a passion, to help others, to be creative, to share our expertise or talent. Rarely though, does a child say, “I want to be a kind person, I want to be generous, I want to be inspiring, I want to be a leader.” But, the hope is that they will grow up and live a life of meaning and purpose.
The first word of Sefer Vayikra, the Book of Leviticus, which we read this week, is Vayikra meaning, “called”: “And God called to Moses and spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting.” So many ancient and modern commentators ask the question, why does the Torah need to say God called, when it also says that God spoke to Moses? What is the meaning of the calling?
Rashi teaches that all oral communications of God to Moses were preceded by a call to prepare Moses for God’s forthcoming address. Something like a wake up call. Rashi adds that the calling is a way of expressing affection, the same way the ministering angels called to each other when addressing each other, as it is said (Isaiah 6:3) “And one called unto another and said, Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts, the line made most familiar in our Kedusha prayer.
“Vayikra,” God’s call, then is a signal to Moses to be ready to hear whatever instruction God is about to teach, but not just for the sake of instruction, also for the sake of affection. God is giving the Torah to Moses and to the Children of Israel as a gift of love and the call is an act of love toward Moses, who is carrying the burden of the whole Torah and the leadership that he never aspired to as he transmits God’s words to the Children of Israel.
Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks teaches in his commentary on Parshat Vayikra 5778 that “God’s call to Moses was something prior to and different from what God went on to say. The latter were the details. The former was the summons, the mission — not unlike God’s first call to Moses at the burning bush where He invited him to undertake the task that would define his life: leading the people out of exile and slavery to freedom in the Promised Land.”
When we speak to children about what they want to be, we often want to learn something from them about who they are, what they love, what they treasure, and what they are passionate about. We hope that they have a motivation to do work in their lives that will help them to undertake the tasks that will define their lives. We hope that our children will want to find a vocation, (which comes from the Latin for “call”) rather than just a job, just a paycheck. We want them to find mission and purpose, and to know that their work will help to build their character.
Rabbi Sacks asks “How do you discover your vocation?” And he teaches “The late Michael Novak argued that a calling has four characteristics. First, it is unique to you. Second, you have the talent for it. Third, it is something which, when you do it, gives you a sense of enjoyment and renewed energy. Fourth, do not expect it to reveal itself immediately. You may have to follow many paths that turn out to be false before you find the true one.”
The whole book of Leviticus is focused on sacrifices, on the role of the priests in the ancient Temple, the minutiae and details of their vocation, their calling, which are tasks most of us will never even think about doing. But, we all have a calling. Vayikra teaches us that finding our vocation, hearing the loving Call of God, gives us the opportunity to do the work that God has called us to do.
It is no accident that Vayikra begins with a call — because it is a book about sacrifices, and vocation involves sacrifice. Being kind, generous, inspiring, and leading in our work and in all parts of our lives are ways that we hear God’s call.
Rabbi Sacks teaches that “discerning that task, hearing God’s call, is what gives a life meaning and purpose. Where what we want to do meets what needs to be done, that is where God wants us to be.”