‘He [God] called to Moses, and the Lord spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting saying…’ (Leviticus 1:1) So opens the third book of the Pentateuch, the book known as Torat Kohanim, the book of the priest-ministers of the Divine Sanctuary, the guardians of the rituals connecting Israel to God. Indeed, this book in Hebrew is, like the others, called by its opening word, Vayikra.
And herein lies a problem. Each of the other four books is called by its opening words, but in those instances the opening words have great significance.
Bereishit [Genesis] is the beginning, the moment in which God called the world-creation into being; Shemot [Exodus], the names of the family members who came down to Egypt, and the exile-slavery experience which transformed them into a nation with a national mission; Bamidbar [Numbers], the desert sojourn of a newly freed people who had to learn the responsibilities of managing a nation-state; and Devarim [Deuteronomy], the farewell words of Moses.
But what is the significance of Vayikra – God calling out to Moses, as the name for a biblical book? Did not God call out to Moses from the time that he came onto the scene of Jewish history? And why is it specifically this time that Moses chose to express his modesty, the word is spelled with a small alef, as if to record that God merely “chanced upon him” (Vayiker), but had not specifically called out to him? I believe that the answer lies in the very strange final words of the last portion of the Book of Exodus, at the conclusion of Pekudei: “The cloud covered the Tent of Meeting, and the glory of the Lord filled the Tabernacle.
Moses could not enter the Tent of Meeting, for the cloud rested upon it, and the glory of the Lord filled the Tabernacle…” (Exodus 40:34-35) We saw in last week’s commentary the majestic words of the Ramban (Nahmanides), explaining how the Book of Exodus concludes the Jewish exile with the glory of the Lord resting upon – and filling – the Tabernacle. Was it not Moses who asked God to reveal His glory to him? Was Moses not the supreme individual in human history who came closer to the Divine than anyone else, who “spoke to God face to face,” whose active intellect actually kissed the active intellect of the Shechina? Why is Moses forbidden from entering the Tent of Meeting? Moses should have entered straightaway, precisely because the glory of God was then filling the Tabernacle! Apparently, the Bible is teaching a crucial lesson about Divine Service: God wants human beings to strive to come close to God, but not too close. God demands even from Moses a measured distance between God and human beings. We must serve Him, but not beyond that which He commands us to do. In Divine Service, we dare not go beyond the laws He ordains that we perform.
There is no “beyond the requirements of the law” in the realm of the laws between humans and God.
God understands the thin line between kadosh and kadesh: Divine service and diabolical suicide bombers, fealty to the King of all Kings and fanatic sacrifice to Moloch. Hence not only does our Bible record the commands God gave to Moses regarding the construction of every aspect of the Divine Sanctuary (Truma and Tetzaveh) but it painstakingly informs us again and again in Vayakhel and Pekudei that those orders were carried out exactly as they had been commanded, no less and no more: “Moses did according to everything that the Lord had commanded, so did he do” (Ex. 40:16).
This is why, further on in the Book of Leviticus God metes out a stringent death penalty upon Nadab and Abihu, sons of Aaron, when they bring before the Lord a “strange fire which they had not been commanded to bring” (Lev. 10:1) in the midst of national fervor of exultant song. Moses even explains this tragic occurrence by saying, “of this did the Lord speak, saying ‘I will be sanctified by those who come [too] close to Me.’” Too close to God can be more dangerous than too distant from Him.
This is why both the Rambam (Maimonides) and the Ramban interpret the commandment par excellence in interpersonal human relationships, “You shall do what is right and good” (Deut. 6:18), to necessitate going beyond the legal requirements, to make certain that you not act like a “scoundrel within the confines of the law,” whereas in the area of Divine-human relationships, you dare not take the law into your own hands; our legal authorities are concerned lest your motivation be yuhara, excessive pride before God, religious “one-upmanship.”
Thus the sacred Book of Vayikra, the book which features our religious devotion to the Lord, opens with Moses’s reluctance to enter the Tabernacle of the Lord unless he is actually summoned to do so by God.
His humility is even more in evidence when he records only in miniature the final letter alef in the word Vayikra, as if to say that perhaps the call he had received by God was more by accident than by design.
The Midrash (Tanhuma 37) teaches that the small amount of ink which should have been utilized on the regular-sized alef of the Torah (as it were), was placed by God on Moses’s forehead; that ink of humility is what provided Moses’s face with the translucent glow with which he descended from Mount Sinai (Ex. 34:33-35).
Fanatic zealots are completely devoid of humility; they operate with the fire without rather than the radiant light from within!