|Vayikra – "And the Lord called..."|
By Julia Blum
Parashat VaYikra, Lev. 1:1 - 5:26
We are entering the third book of Torah, VaYikra (Leviticus in English). Highly significant is the fact that this book is placed in the very center of Torah: two books are before, and two books are after. There is so much action before Leviticus: all the wonderful events and stories of Genesis and Exodus, all the great narratives that make such dramatic and colorful pictures in children's Bibles. There is some action after this book, although the very tone, the musical key of the stories of the last two books is completely different from the first ones. However, there is still activity and action both in Numbers and in Deuteronomy. But here, in VaYikra, there is almost no narrative, almost no action – everything stands still here. Why?
Torah is amazing, it's incredible how you find in every reading something completely new within what seems to be so well known! Only recently I realized how profoundly the spiritual topography of our lives is reflected by the very placement of its books. I can definitely relate – I suppose, many of us can – to this spiritual topography. We have all had our Genesis and Exodus, full of events and stories, full of actions and narratives – and through all these stories, all these turbulences and battles, God eventually brought each one of us to the pinnacle of our lives, to our own Mount Sinai. There we encountered Him personally. There He met us, there He claimed us and called us His own. There we experienced His love and surrendered our lives to Him. Then, after this wonderful experience, after we met God, we got busy doing things for Him, being engaged in endless activities, building Him a sanctuary... Inevitably, however, a moment comes, when, for one reason or another, all these activities stop – all of a sudden, everything becomes still. And then – like Moshe – you find yourself in the next book of your life – VaYikra.
I think, when God first started to speak to Moshe in VaYikra, that Moshe was confused, perplexed, and dismayed for a while. It's not that he had never heard His voice before this book. By the time we enter VaYikra, Moshe is already a great and accomplished leader who knows well the voice of the Lord and has done amazing things for and with Him. He had just led the people out of Egypt, had just received the Ten Commandments, had just completed building the Tabernacle – and, I suppose, after all these momentous activities, he was ready to just go on. I'm sure he expected the Lord to keep giving him some practical instructions: "Lord, what do you want me to do next? What do you want me to build for you? Where do you want us to go?" But there is no going or building in VaYikra. Instead, Adonai speaks of sacrifice.
Years ago a dear brother, who brought us to the Lord, while speaking of somebody who had a really busy life, said: "One has to know when to stop". Somehow, these simple words stayed with me – maybe because I realized that we often fail to stop when we should. At those times, God Himself has to stop us - and the book of Leviticus, VaYikra, is indeed such a stop. Yes, there will be more action and more events later, in Numbers and Deuteronomy, but for now, we have to stop, to listen silently to God and to learn from Him to sacrifice.
Do you know that in Hebrew, the root karav – the one from which the words lehakreev , to sacrifice, and korban, sacrifice, are formed - is the same root that forms the word lehitkarev – to come near, to draw near, to come closer. Yes, it is that simple: if you want lehitkarev leElohim, to come closer to God – you have to lehakreev, to go through korban, sacrifice. It is the same process, the same root. And only when we learn to sacrifice does the real closeness, the real intimacy with God come. This new closeness with God is even greater than we previously experienced. God stops us – because He wants us closer to Himself. He wants us lehakreev - and by doing that, lehitkarev.
How does God stop us? Let us have a closer look at the way the Book of Leviticus connects with the preceding Torah reading, the final words of the Book of Exodus. The concluding verses of Exodus describe the completion of the Sanctuary, the wonderful portable Temple, built at the foot of Mount Sinai. This sanctuary was to accompany the Jewish people throughout their long journey in the wilderness, and was to be set up in the Land of Israel when they finally got there. The last chapters of Exodus in their entirety describe the efforts of the people in building the Tabernacle. Finally, in the very last chapter, it is finished. And then – what happens next?
Then the cloud covered the tabernacle (Ex. 40:35). A thick cloud covered the newly built Sanctuary. Because of this cloud, Moshe himself was unable to enter the Sanctuary. Can you imagine? After all the efforts which had gone into this building, it was covered by a cloud and seemed to be totally inaccessible – and totally useless.
You might be thinking: what is she talking about? It was not just cloud; it was God's glory, God's presence that covered the Sanctuary! Of course, everybody knows NOW that it was God's presence, not just a cloud! But think of that first moment when it happened – how could they know what exactly this cloud was? Oh yes, I am certain that Moshe had faith, that he didn't doubt or question God even at that moment; but I am also quite sure that there were many who were grumbling, wondering why in the world they had spent so much time building the very thing that seemed now to be so useless, so inaccessible.
We always have this choice: to recognize the presence of God, the hand of God, the voice of God – or to see just a cloud, interfering with our plans. When Yeshua is saying: "Father, glorify Your name, " and the Voice from heaven answers Him (John 12:27-29), among the people who stood by and heard, were those who said: "it was thunder!" It is always our choice: to recognize God's voice from heaven – or to hear just thunder. To recognize God's presence covering the Tabernacle – or see a cloud that just "happened" to come in a bad time and became an unfortunate obstacle in our worship.
In an amazing way – like everything in Torah – this choice is reflected by the very first word of our portion, "VaYikra" (Leviticus 1:1). In the original Hebrew text, the word Vayikra has one specific feature: it's written with a little aleph at the end. There are three sizes of the letters in Torah – intermediate, oversized and miniature – and every time we have a letter of a different size, we definitely should look for a profound explanation. So, why do we have this miniature aleph here?
Our sages offered different explanations, most of them have to do with humbleness: Moshe attained the highest level of humility, they say, and it was expressed by the miniaturealeph of Vayikra. There is, however, a deeper explanation, that we will apply here. The word "VaYikra" without the aleph would read "VaYiker", which means - "and it happened". There is a huge and truly ontological difference between the worldview based on Vayikra, - "and He called" – and the worldview based on VaYiker – "and it happened" : here we go back again to whether we hear thunder or God's voice from heaven; whether we simply see a cloud or see His very presence covering the Tabernacle. While we are here on this earth, everything, absolutely everything, can be seen as something that "just happened" – as opposed to something that He called into being. But faith knows that there is a little aleph beyond everything that "just happens", and it is this aleph that makes all the difference. That is why Moshe, who was a man of faith, was able not only to recognize God's presence in what seemed to be just a cloud and to move on to the next book, but also, to move on through this book, through VaYikra: lehakreev, in order to lehitkarev.