By Shlomo Riskin
The opening words of this third book of the Bible, the book of Vayikra, tells us that God first called to Moses and then communicated to him a specific message concerning the sacrificial offerings of the Sanctuary. Why this double language of “calling” first and then “speaking” afterwards? Why not cut to the chase: “And the Lord spoke to Moses from the Tent of Meeting”?
The Ramban (Nahmanides) explains: “This [seemingly superfluous language of first calling and then speaking] is not used elsewhere; 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” (Ramban ad loc). From this second perspective, it is Moses who must first be summoned by God and receive Divine permission before he dare enter the Sacred Tent of Meeting of the exalted Holy of Holies.
Since the very last verses in the Book of Exodus specifically tell us that whenever a cloud covered the Sanctuary, Moses was prevented from entering the Tent of Meeting and communicating with the Divine (Exodus 40:34, 35). Hence, the Book of Leviticus opens with God summoning Moses into the Tent of Meeting, apparently signaling the departure of the cloud and the Divine permission for Moses to hear God’s words.
This scenario helps us understand God’s relationship – and 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 identity between the Divine and the Israelites on earth would signal the period of redemption. This would have been a fitting conclusion to the exodus from Egypt.
Israel then sinned with the Golden Calf and God immediately informs them that “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 the Israelites are worthy can God dwell in their midst. If they forego their true vocation as a “sacred nation and a Kingdom of priest-teachers” while God is in such close proximity to them, then this God of truth will have to punish and even destroy them. He will therefore now keep His distance from them, retaining His “place”, as it were, in the supernal, transcendent realms, and sending His “angel-messenger” to lead them in their battles to conquer the Promised Land (Ibid. 33:2,3).
As a physical symbol of the concealment – or partial absence – of the Divine (hester panim), Moses takes the Tent of Meeting and removes its central position in the Israelite encampment, to a distance of 2000 cubits away (33:7). He then remonstrates with God arguing that the Almighty had promised to show His love by means of His Divine Name, to reveal to him His Divine attributes; and to accept Israel as His special nation (33:11, 12). In other words, Moses argues that 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 entire 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 them, stepping in whenever necessary to make certain that Israel will never disappear and will eventually return to their homeland.
God may not be completely manifest as the God of love in every historical experience of our people, and will not yet teach the world ethical monotheism. Israel remains a “work-in-progress” with God behind a cloud and incommunicado. Our nation, albeit imperfect, still serves as witnesses that the God of love and compassion exists, and orchestrates historical redemption through Israel.
What God leaves behind even when He is in a cloud are the two tablets of stone – His Divine Torah with the human input of the Oral Law – as well as His 13 “ways” or attributes; God’s spiritual and emotional characteristics (Lev. 34:1-7). And when individuals internalize these attributes – imbue their hearts, minds and souls with love, compassion, kindness, grace and peace – they cause God to become manifest. Then the cloud between Moses’ Active Intellect and God’s Active Intellect disappears, and Moses is enabled to teach and understand God’s Torah.
And so Vayikra opens when God perceives that Moses has reached the highest spiritual level achievable by mortals, the cloud is removed from the Tent of the Meeting and God invites Moses to enter it and receive more of those Divine Emanations which comprise our Bible.
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone and chief rabbi of Efrat, Israel.