Parashat Vayikra: Permission to speak

What God leaves behind even when He is in a cloud are the two newly chiseled tablets of stone - His divine Torah with the human input of the Oral Law.

moses 88 (photo credit: )
moses 88
(photo credit: )
"And He called to Moses, and the Lord spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting, saying: 'Speak to the Children of Israel and say unto them: A human being, when he shall bring a sacrifice unto the Lord, from the animals, from the cattle and from the sheep shall you offer your sacrifices" (Leviticus 1:1, 2). The opening words of Vayikra tell us that God first called to Moses and then communicated a specific message. Why this double language of "calling" first and then "speaking"? Why not cut to the chase: "And the Lord spoke to Moses from the Tent of Meeting"? The talmudic sage Rabbi Menasia Rabba, in Tractate Yoma (4b), explains that the Bible is giving us a lesson in manners: Before someone commands another to do something, he must first ask permission to give the order. He even suggests that before someone begins speaking to another, he must ascertain that the other wishes to hear what he has to say. And even if the speaker, or commander, is one's God, one dare not take for granted the right to share a thought or make a demand. Freedom of choice extends even to a lowly mortal in the presence of the divine; Judaism rejects the very concept of a captive audience. Hence God has to ask permission from Moses before speaking to him. The Ramban (Nahmanides) takes a completely opposite view: "This [seemingly superfluous language of first calling and then speaking] is not used in the rest of the places [where God addresses Moses]; it is only used here because Moses would not otherwise have been permitted to enter the Tent of Meeting, would not otherwise have been permitted to be in such close proximity to the place where the Almighty was to be found." From this second perspective, it is Moses who must receive divine permission before he dare enter the sacred Tent of Meeting. This latter interpretation seems closest to the biblical text; the very last verses in Exodus specifically tell us that whenever a cloud covered the sanctuary, Moses would be prevented from entering and communicating with the divine (Ex. 40:34, 35). Hence, God summoning Moses to the Tent of Meeting apparently signals the departure of the cloud and divine permission for Moses to hear God's words. This scenario will help us understand God's relationship - and apparent lack thereof - with the Israelites in general and with Moses in particular. You may recall that the initial commandment to erect a sanctuary was in order for the divine presence to dwell in the midst of the Israelites (Ex. 25:8); such a close identification between the divine and the Israelites will signal the redemption, a time when the God of love's beneficent oneness will suffuse the world. This would have been a fitting conclusion to the Exodus (which made God's presence known to all the nations of the world) and the revelation at Sinai. Tragically, Israel proceeded to sin with the Golden Calf, and God immediately informs His people: "I cannot go up in your midst because you are a stiff-necked nation, lest I destroy you on the way (Ex. 33:3)." Only if we are worthy can God dwell in our midst; if we forgo our true vocation as a "sacred nation and a kingdom of priest-teachers" to the world, God will keep His distance from us, retain His "place," as it were, in the supernal realms and send His "angel-messenger" to lead us in our battles over the Promised Land (ibid 33:2,3). As a physical symbol of the hiddenness - or partial absence - of the divine, Moses moves the Tent of Meeting 2,000 cubits from the center of the Israelite encampment (33:7). Moses then turns to God, remonstrating that God has told him He will love him by means of His divine name, and that He will reveal to him His divine ways or attributes; moreover, He will accept Israel as His special nation (33:11, 12). In other words, Moses argues that God Himself will reveal His name - an aspect of His essence - to Moses, and that He, God - and not an angel-messenger - must reveal His divine ways and lead Israel (Rashbam on 33:13). God then responds that indeed "My face will lead," I Myself and not an angel-messenger, and "I shall bring you [you, Moses, but not the nation] to your ultimate resting place" (33:14). Moses is not satisfied, and argues that God Himself (His "face" and not His angel-messenger) must lead not only Moses but also the nation. Otherwise, he says, "do not take us [the nation] out of this desert." And finally God agrees that although He cannot be in the midst of the nation, He can and will lead the nation, stepping in whenever necessary to make certain that His people Israel will never disappear and will eventually return to its homeland and bring about the redemption of the world. God may not be completely manifest as the God of love in every historical experience of our people, and will not yet be teaching the world ethical monotheism; after all, Israel is still a "work-in-progress," with God behind a cloud and "incommunicado" - much of the time for Israel and some of the time even for Moses. But the nation, albeit imperfect, still serves as a witness that the God of love and compassion exists, a God who believes in historical redemption through Israel. God is "incorporated," incorporealized, in Israel - the people and the Land. What God leaves behind even when He is in a cloud are the two newly chiseled tablets of stone - His divine Torah with the human input of the Oral Law - as well as His 13 attributes, God's spiritual and emotional characteristics of love, compassion, freely given grace, patience, kindness, etc. (Leviticus 34:1-7). And when individuals internalize these attributes - imbue their hearts, minds and souls with love, compassion, kindness, grace and peace - God becomes manifest from within them, and they can thus communicate with Him "face to face." Then the cloud between Moses's active intellect and God's active intellect disappears, and God's Torah and Moses's Torah become identical. And so Vayikra opens when God perceives that Moses has reached the highest spiritual level achievable by mortals, and so He invites Moses to enter the Tent of Meeting and receive more of those divine emanations which comprise our Bible. The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.