The Call across the Divide

Parashat vaYikra, Leviticus 1:1-5:26

by Rabbi Russ Resnik

It’s one of the 100 most-performed songs of the 20th century, the second best single of all time according to Guinness, and number three in Rolling Stone magazine’s list of “The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.” And here’s what it says:

Imagine there’s no heaven / It’s easy if you try
No hell below us / Above us only sky
Imagine all the people living for today

Imagine there’s no countries / It isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for / And no religion too
Imagine all the people living life in peace . . . Copyright © Downtown Music Publishing

This isn’t just a 20th century sentiment, but an idea that is thriving in the twenty-first. The most rapidly growing religious affiliation in the US is the “Nones,” people with “no religion” as John Lennon would put it. In 2014, Nones represented 23% of the US population and 35% of Millennials. Only seven or eight percent of Americans declare themselves atheists or agnostics; so most of the Nones believe that there’s a God or, more accurately, that there’s probably something out there, but this “something” is beyond personality, beyond our knowing, and generally not that relevant. One reason that Nones don’t affiliate is that they think religious people use the idea of God for their own narrow purposes. So if you get too specific in your beliefs about God, you’re suspect. The (dogmatic) truth among the Nones is that all religions are groping toward the same destination, even though they don’t realize it, so any claim to unique truth is invalid.

For the unaffiliated, especially the younger unaffiliated, if you claim to know God, or more outrageously yet, claim that God actually wants to make himself known, you’re part of the problem. If there’s a God, he should keep his distance.

Leviticus dispels this dogma of the undefined God from its first word.

Leviticus opens with Vayikra el Moshe, “And he called to Moses…” Normally, when God speaks to Moses, the verb is amar or davar, used repeatedly throughout the Torah. Vayikra, on the other hand, is used to describe God’s speaking to Moses at only three points in the story.

The first Vayikra came when Moses was out tending his father-in-law’s sheep and saw a bush burning without being consumed by the fire. He turned aside to observe this wonder more closely, “vayikra elav Elohim – and God called out to him from the midst of the bush and said ‘Moses! Moses!’ and he replied ‘Hineni – here I am!’” (Exodus 3:4).

The second Vayikra actually appears twice. When Israel arrived at Mount Sinai, “Moses went up to God and Adonai called to him – vayikra elav – from the mountain” (Exodus 19:3). Later, Moses went back up to receive the stone tablets, “and the cloud covered the mountain. The glory of Adonai rested upon Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it for six days. And he called to Moses – vayikra el-Moshe – on the seventh day from the midst of the cloud” (Exodus 24:15-15).

The third Vayikra is here at the beginning of our parasha. Exodus concluded with the tabernacle or tent of meeting in place, filled with the glory-cloud of God’s presence so that Moses could not go in. The cloud rested upon it “in the sight of all the house of Israel throughout all their journeys, and the Lord called to Moses and spoke to him from the tent of meeting” (Ex. 40:38b – Lev. 1:1).

The glory-cloud keeps Moses at a distance; the voice of Adonai calls him near.

This glory-cloud God is not the abstract “something out there” of the no-religion folks. The God of the Bible is awesome, transcendent—and actively revealing himself to us. He’s a person, who ultimately reveals himself by walking among us in human form—a scandalous idea in our postmodern world. In Exodus this God appears to be unapproachable, but he calls out to Moses, our representative, across the distance of his otherness and awe.

This same dynamic is at work with the other two Vayikras. At the Burning Bush, the fire of God keeps Moses at a distance, but the voice of God calls to him across the distance. Likewise at Sinai; the glory-cloud covers the mountain and no one can approach. But the voice of God calls Moses to come near and hear his life-giving instructions.

The Nones are right to emphasize God’s otherness. We’re wrong if we try to reduce God to our categories or harness him to our agendas. The Nones probably wouldn’t use the term “holiness”, but that’s what they’re sensing. But the unique message of Scripture is that God calls to us across the divide of his holiness. God won’t diminish the impact of his holiness, but he still seeks to bring humanity near. Here is a remedy to our tendency to reduce the divine to our own terms, to produce a user-friendly god, or like the Nones, an irrelevant God. The God of Israel will always transcend our terms, and yet he calls us to draw near. Spiritual growth means embracing God’s transcendence, at the same time as we listen for his call across the divide.

God’s call to Moses in Leviticus 1 introduces an elaborate system of sacrifice, detailed in the rest of our parasha, and all the way through Leviticus 9. Worship is the goal of the Exodus, so why does Leviticus seem to make worship so difficult? The truth is that the rules of sacrifice and priesthood don’t make worship more difficult; rather, they make it possible. God is ever-present, but his holiness keeps us mortals at a distance. The Levitical system is given, not to impose or maintain the distance, but to bring us near, and to prepare the way for the ultimate Sacrifice who bridges the gap.

God seems abstract, unknowable, totally other to many today, but the God of Scripture reveals himself to be a person, knowable, and near to those who heed his call. This God might even be calling out across the divide, to some of those who’d like to imagine a world where God doesn’t matter.

Stephanie Escalnate