By: Rabbi Daniel Aronson
This week’s Torah portion opens the Book of Leviticus. Leviticus, or Vayikra as it is known in Hebrew, serves as a handbook for the priests tasked with overseeing the sacrificial system of the Tabernacle and, later, the Temple. Wish so much attention to sacrifices and the details of the priesthood, Vayikra is the most difficult of all books of Torah for the average person to access. Imagine trying to make your way through a medical handbook without ever having received training in medicine. That’s kind of what it’s like to read Vayikra. You are, therefore, forgiven if your eyes glaze over from week to week as we read about the complexities of the priestly work.
That said, Leviticus is chalk full of learning opportunities for us right from the opening word. Most of us, though, could use a little help to recognize those opportunities. That’s where commentators such as Rashi, Rabbi Shlomo Yitchaki of France (1040-1105), come in.
Leviticus begins: “Vayikra Adonai el Moshe, va-yidaber eilav…” “God called to Moses and spoke to him…” (Lev. 1:1)
Rashi asks: Why preface “God spoke” to Moses with “God called to Moses”? Wouldn’t it be sufficient to say simply “God spoke to Moses”?
Before getting to Rashi’s answer, it is important to remember that God only “calls” to Moses two other times in the Torah: once at the Burning Bush and once at Sinai. All other communications from God to Moses begin with simply “God spoke to Moses…,” “God said to Moses…,” or “God commanded Moses…” without this particular introduction. “Vayikra” is, thus, rarely used to introduce God’s communication to Moses and, therefore, begs to be understood.
While we might think every instance of God saying, speaking or commanding represents a new communication from God, in Rashi’s imagination only those times when we read “vayikra” represent new communications. The terms “spoke,” “said,” and “commanded” merely indicate new topics or paragraphs within those periods of communication. According to Rashi, those terms represent times in God’s communication with Moses where God allows Moses quiet time to fully understand what God had just finished saying.
Rashi further explains that the word “vayikra” implies affection. When God reveals God’s self to Balaam, the prophet of an enemy of Israel, later in the Torah, God does so in a casual, even crude manner: “God happened upon (vayikar) Balaam.” There is no intentionality, no singular relationship that merited a specific call. In speaking with the Prophet of Israel, however, God singles Moses out and captures his attention before speaking.
As an educator and a parent, I find great meaning in these teachings of Rashi. Just as God gave Moses breathers so he could assimilate information he’d just received, so to must teachers and parents allow students and children time and space to make sense of new information. We have to be careful not to overwhelm those whom we are teaching by delivering too much information all at once. We need to break things down into small, manageable components, and then wait a while before broaching a new topic.
In addition, before we begin to address our students and children, we need to get their attention and convey to them that we care. God doesn’t just break into speech hoping that Moses will drop what he’s doing and listen. By the time Moses realizes God is speaking to him, he might have missed a good chunk of the message. Therefore, God gives him a heads up: “Hey, Moses. I’ve got to talk to you.” With that, Moses can turn his attention fully to God and not miss a word.
Moreover, in order for teachers and parents to be effective educators, their students and children must feel cared for. Whenever people feel unworthy of a teacher’s attention, there is too much “static” between the teacher and the pupil for the lesson to arrive fully in tact. “Calling” to students and children in a caring, affectionate way makes it much easier for the student/child to learn. And isn’t enabling students and children to learn every teacher’s and parent’s goal?
Who would have thought that just the word “vayikra” could bear such riches? Yet, with the help of Rashi, we discovered a real gem. In the weeks ahead, may we be mindful of similar such gems within Vayikra, a difficult book of the Torah to mine, one that requires a guide to navigate more than any other.