On the surface, Vayikra, Hebrew for “and He called”, does not seem to be such an exciting title. But, as with the rest of the Torah, if we journey beneath the surface, we can discover incredible depth and meaning. We will learn about the true depths of Moses’ humility, and how basic human decency is a prerequisite for Torah; that his greatest task, even after leading the Jewish people out of Egypt, still lay ahead of him; that the Torah is a Divine gift – the “Manufacturer’s guide to life”; and that the entire foundation of Torah is to create an olam hayedidut, “a world of loving friendship”, between us and G-d, and between us and our fellow human beings.
This week’s portion, Vayikra, begins the third book of the Chumash, Vayikra. Titles of books are very important. In fact, the title you choose is actually going to help “sell” the book. Finding the right title goes to the heart of what the book is really about and forces us to crystallise our thinking.
So, what is the name Vayikra about?
On the surface, Vayikra, Hebrew for “and He called”, does not seem to be such an exciting title. It does not seem to convey great depth or meaning at first glance, but of course it must because this is G-d’s Torah and we are obviously missing something if we just look at it superficially.
The name Vayikra comes from the very first verse: “And He [G-d] called to Moses, and G-d spoke to him from the tent of meeting.” What does it mean that G-d called to Moses and then He spoke to him?
Vayikra actually means an invitation. The tent of meeting is where G-d was going to continue the revelation that began at Mount Sinai, where He gave over all of the principles and laws of the Torah to Moses and the Jewish people. G-d invites Moses into the tent of meeting – the Tabernacle, to hear His voice so that Moses could then teach the people everything he was receiving from G-d.
A fascinating Midrash says this verse reveals the humility of Moses; that Moses was waiting for an invitation because he was so humble. This was the great man who led the Jewish people out of Egyptian slavery and was the instrument through which G-d’s miracles were performed – the ten plagues, the splitting of the sea, the manna from Heaven; who ascended Mount Sinai to receive G-d’s word, face to face with the Creator of the world. There is no one in history with a more impressive CV. And yet he assumed nothing, he waited for an invitation to enter the tent of meeting.
From this, the Midrash learns that a person with derech eretz, a mensch, does not just walk into a place, but waits for an invitation. Being a mensch, having what our sages call middot tovot, good character traits, is the foundation of Judaism. The Midrash actually goes as far as to say regarding a Torah scholar who does not behave in accordance with basic menschlichkeit – a “carcass is better than him”. The severity of this comment is jarring. But these sharp words of our sages convey a crucial lesson.
Rav Aharon Kotler, one of the great Jewish thinkers of the 20th century, explains that someone who lacks middot tovot lacks everything. G-d gave us the Torah to elevate us to the highest possible spiritual level. But before we can achieve that, we need to be decent human beings. Only then can the Torah build on that and take us to that higher level. Says Rav Aharon Kotler, we need both derech eretz and Torah and mitzvot. We cannot have one without the other. He goes further: if there is no derech eretz, that actually poisons the Torah we learn and live by.
Moses’ greatest task: to teach the Jews what it means to be a Jew
There is another idea brought out by another Midrash. Moses thought his job was done. He was instrumental in leading the people out of Egypt, initiating the ten plagues, splitting the sea and bringing down the manna from heaven. As we mentioned before, he had the utmost humility. Indeed, when G-d came to Moses at the burning bush and he was offered the most important job in history – to lead the Jewish people out of Egypt – he was worried he was not the right person. It took G-d a whole week of persuasion to convince Moses to take on the task. And now, Moses felt that job was complete. He was not interested in the high position, he was only interested in completing the mission that G-d had given him. He felt there was no need to maintain his high leadership role once that mission was fulfilled.
But then G-d called him into the tent of meeting, and, according to the Midrash, told Moses that his greatest mission still lay before him. That mission was to transmit the sacred teachings of the Torah; to teach the people the difference between right and wrong, good and evil, pure and impure; to teach people what it means to be a Jew; to pass along the manual for the “Manufacturer’s guide to life”. This was the greatest task of all.
Torah is Divine, not humanly engineered
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, one of our great commentators from the 19th century, explains that the message of “and He called to Moses” is that the Torah, the word of G-d in all its details, did not come from Moses but to Moses. It did not come from the Jewish people but to the Jewish people. All political, legal and cultural systems are engineered by people, from the inside. Judaism is unique in that G-d revealed His will to approximately 3 million people who stood at the foot of Mount Sinai. Judaism came directly from the Divine.
This is the uniqueness of Judaism: G-d gives it to us. And we have to listen. One of the most famous verses in the Torah is Shema Yisrael – “Hear o Israel”. The art of being a good Jew is to learn to listen – to really listen and hear what the Torah is teaching us – because this is G-d’s wisdom for how to lead our lives, for living in accordance with G-d’s will and allowing His direction and wisdom to permeate every aspect of our lives.
Creating a loving relationship with G-d
Rav Zalman Sorotzkin, one of the great Lithuanian rabbis, has an interesting insight on this Midrash. Moses was involved in the splitting of the sea and now G-d tells him there is an even greater mission ahead of him, something even more difficult. In what way is it more difficult? There is a passage in the Talmud that says it is far more challenging to make and build a good marriage than it is to split the sea. The Maharal explains that this is a greater feat because splitting the sea meant taking a unified body of water and splitting it into two. Creating, nurturing and building a great marriage is about taking two people and turning them into one. It requires even more effort.
Rav Sorotzkin explains that bringing two people together in perfect union is unimaginably difficult, in the same way as Moses’ mission to bring together the Jewish people and G-d in a real, loving relationship.
The foundation of Judaism is a loving relationship with G-d
This brings us to a third idea on the phrase, “and He called to Moses”. Rashi there says that G-d’s calling to Moses was a sign of affection. Rav Shach, one of the great rabbinic leaders of the last half of the 20th century, expounds on Rashi’s words, saying that calling someone by name shows you love them; it is indeed a powerful way of engaging with people.
Judaism is not just a set of laws that the King gives and we have to obey. The foundation of it all is a loving relationship with G-d. He called to Moses not only to teach the people what to do, but to build a loving relationship between G-d and the Jewish people so that he would be able to use that as the platform for teaching the people to follow His commandments.
If we were to sum up all of Judaism into one phrase, what would that be? Rav Shlomo Wolbe, one of the great rabbinic thinkers of the 20th century, summed it up in two words: olam hayedidut, “a world of loving friendship” – between us and G-d, between us and our fellow human beings. This is the world we seek to create, and the Torah is the framework for creating this world of loving friendship.
And, in fact, it is that eternal “friendship”, that emotional connection, that lies at the heart of the Torah. You can look at the Torah simply as a list of instructions, and it can start to feel like a book of traffic regulations – G-d says do this, don’t do that. But at the heart of the mitzvot lies the loving bond that we have with G-d; indeed, the mitzvot are themselves an expression of olam hayedidut.
When G-d gives us commandments, He is not instructing us as a legislator imposing laws on his submissive and fearful subjects. Rather, He is like a loving parent who instructs and guides out of care and concern, to give us, His children, the best opportunity to live the best life possible. When we keep His mitzvot, it is within the context of this world of loving friendship.
This idea is encapsulated in the phrase, “and He called to Moses”. Before even getting into the details of the commandments, the platform for a loving relationship had to be built. So G-d calls Moses, using his name, establishing a loving relationship, and only after that loving relationship is established, can all the laws follow.
Thus, the name of the book of Vayikra actually contains these fundamental ideas. It is an invitation from G-d to Moses, reflecting Moses’ menschlichkeit and humility in not entering until he was invited, demonstrating that derech eretz is a prerequisite to Torah. And it is a call to us to hear the words of Torah – the call of Shema Yisrael. This calling comes from love and concern, from the bond of a true relationship between G-d and the Jewish people.