This week’s portion, Vayikra, begins the third book of the Chumash, and so the third book is called by the name 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 crystallize 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. Torah, being the wisdom of Hashem, is much deeper than we can ever begin to understand. We must never ever look at things on a superficial level; we must go beneath the surface to understand it.
The name Vayikra comes from the very first verse of the book of Vayikra. Chapter 1 verse 1 says as follows: Vayikra el Moshe “and He called to Moses,” He referring to G-d, vayedaber Hashem eilav, “and G-d spoke to him,” me’ohel mo’ed “from the tent of meeting.” This is the opening verse of the parsha tomorrow, the opening verse of the book, and it’s from here that the whole book gets its name, Vayikra. What does it mean that G-d called to Moses and then He spoke to him?
Vayikra actually means a call, 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.
There is a very fascinating passage in the Midrash which says this verse is all about the humility of Moses. Why was an invitation necessary? The Midrash teaches us that Moses was waiting for an invitation because he was so humble. The Midrash speaks about all of the details of Moses’ leadership. Here was the man who led the Jewish People and performed great miracles; obviously, these were G-d’s miracles, but he was the instrument through which they happened. He was the great leader who brought about the ten plagues, who split the Red Sea, who brought the manna from heaven, and who went up Mount Sinai to receive G-d’s word. There is no one in history who has ever had a more impressive CV than Moshe Rabbeinu. Here he is, having done everything, having seen everything, having communicated directly with G-d, and yet he waits for an invitation to enter the tent of meeting. He does not assume, well, I am Moses, I don’t need an invitation, I will just walk right in. He waits. People often like to namedrop, to show how important they are. Moses’ humility was such that even though he had achieved so much, he waited for an invitation.
The Midrash learns a very important lesson from Moses’ waiting for an invitation before entering. It says having derech eretz, refinement of character, and being a mentsch, a decent person, means that one does not just walk into a place, rather one waits for an invitation. Being a mentsch, having what our Sages call midot tovot, good character traits, is the fundamental principle upon which Judaism is based. The Midrash actually goes as far as to say that any Torah-learning person who does not display and behave in accordance with the fundamental principles of mentschlichkeit and good character, neveila tova mimeno, “a carcass is better than him.” The severity of this comment is jarring. But these sharp words of our Sages convey a very important lesson.
This lesson is drawn out of our Sages’ words by one of the great thinkers of the 20th century, Rav Aharon Kotler. He explains the severity of the imagery of “a carcass is better than him” to mean that derech eretz and mentschlikheit, good character and decency, is so vital to what it means to be a good Jew that if a person lacks in these he lacks everything. Hashem gave us the Torah to elevate us to the highest possible spiritual and moral levels. But before we can achieve that we need to be decent human beings and only then can the Torah build on that and take us to even higher levels. Says Rav Aharon Kotler, we need all of it together – derech eretz and mentschlichkeit, and Torah and mitzvot. We cannot have one without the other. He says if there is no derech eretz that actually poisons the Torah values by which we seek to live; the two are inextricably linked.
The opening of the book of Vayikra reflects Moses’ humility and greatness, his refinement and mentschlichkeit. Despite everything he had achieved, Moses was not so presumptuous as to walk right in; he waited for G-d’s invitation. Moses is our role model in humility.
Moses’ greatest task: to teach the Jews what it means to be a Jew
There is another idea that is contained in this opening phrase, which is brought out by another Midrash, the Midrash Tanchumah. Moses thought his job was done. He was instrumental in leading the people out of Egypt, bringing about the ten plagues, splitting the sea, and bringing down the manna from heaven. He had done so much and he thought his job was over. 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 said, maybe I am not the right person, I can’t speak so well, try and find someone else. It took G-d a whole week of persuasion to convince Moses to take on the task. It was not just feigned humility, like when someone offers us a great position and we refuse, ostensibly out of humility, but then we say, okay, if you insist. By Moses it took a lot of persuasion. And now, Moses felt he had done his job. He was not interested in the high position, he was interested in doing the right thing and completing the mission that G-d had given him. He felt there was no need to maintain his high leadership role once his task has been fulfilled.
But then Vayikra el Moshe, G-d called him into the tent of meeting, and according to the Midrash Tanchumah G-d said to Moses your greatest mission lies not behind you but ahead of you. G-d said to Moses, you have to teach the people. In this tent of meeting I am going to give you all of the details of what this Torah is about and you are going to have to teach the people the difference between right and wrong, good and evil, pure and impure – that is going to be your greatest task. You think you have done your job, but in fact a greater task lies ahead of you.
This task of Moses was the most important because the Torah encompasses everything about what it means to be a Jew and how to live our lives. We have the most incredible gift that G-d has given us, a whole plan of action – in a sense, the “manufacturer’s guide” – of how to live., and Moses had to transmit this to the people.
Torah is divine, not humanly engineered
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, one of our great commentators from the 19th century, explains that the message in Vayikra el Moshe, “and He called to Moses,” is that the word of G-d, all of the details and the contents of the Torah, did not come from Moses but to Moses; Vayikra el Moshe. 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. They do not come from the outside. Judaism is unique in that G-d revealed His presence to approximately 3 million people who stood at the foot of Mount Sinai. Judaism did not come from the people, it came to the people. Rabbi Hirsch points out that this is why G-d insisted at the time of the revelation at Mount Sinai that the people stand back from the mountain, so there would be no misconception that somehow the law had come from the people. It came to them, from G-d.
This is the uniqueness of Judaism: G-d gives it to us. It is G-d’s way of showing us how we should live. Vayikra el Moshe, He called to Moshe and said, go and teach the people. We have to listen. This is one of the most famous verses in Judaism and the way we lead our lives – Shema Yisrael, “hear o Israel.” The whole 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.
This is what Vayikra el Moshe is about. G-d says to Moshe, you think you have done great things until now, but there is a much more important mission that lies ahead. You have to teach the people how to live, teach them the essence of what it means to be a Jew, to live in accordance with G-d’s will and allow His direction and wisdom to permeate every aspect of our lives.
Creating a loving relationship with G-d
Rav Zalman Sorotzkin, one of our great Rabbis of Lithuania, has an interesting insight on this Midrash Tanchumah. Moses was involved in the splitting of the sea and now G-d says I have got a greater mission for you, I have got something even more difficult to perform. 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 body of water which is one and splitting it into two. This is unnatural, because the water should be one and now you are dividing it into two. Creating, nurturing and building a great marriage is about taking two people and turning them into one. It requires the same kind of effort – and even more.
Rav Sorotzkin quotes the above passage of the Talmud in the context of this Midrash Tanchumah. What G-d was saying to Moses was, you split the sea, that is true, but now I have a far greater mission for you. In the same way that building a marriage requires tremendous effort and insight, so too, G-d says to Moses, your current mission of bringing together the Jewish People and G-d in a real loving relationship is a mission which is greater than the splitting of the sea.
The foundation of Judaism is a loving relationship with G-d
This brings us to a third idea on Vayikra el Moshe, “and He called to Moses.” Rashi there says that Hashem’s calling to Moshe 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. Thus Vayikra el Moshe, G-d’s calling Moshe, was a sign of love. 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 Moshe not only to teach the people what to do, but to build a loving relationship between G-d and the Jewish People so that we 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 – that is the world we seek to create, and the Torah is the framework for creating such a world of loving friendship. It is a relationship, not just a list of orders and decrees the King is issuing to his loyal subjects – you must do this, you mustn’t do that – a list of instructions that you have to follow whether you like it or not. Sure, mitzvot are instructions. The commandments that we fulfil are instructions and we do have to live in accordance with those instructions, but they are within the framework of a loving relationship with Hashem.
This is encapsulated in Vayikra el Moshe, G-d called to Moshe. Before even getting into the details of the commandments, the platform for a loving relationship had to be built. So G-d calls Moshe, using his name, establishing a loving relationship, and only after that loving relationship has been established can all the laws follow.
Thus, the name of the book of Vayikra actually contains all the aforementioned ideas. It is an invitation from G-d to Moses, reflecting Moses’ mentschlikheit and humility in not entering until he was invited, demonstrating that mentschlichkeit is a prerequisite to adhering to the laws of the Torah; and it is a call to us to hear the words of Torah. There is a call from Hashem, saying Shema Yisrael, hear o Israel. This calling comes from love, from concern, from the bond of a true relationship between G-d and us.