Jewish Life Torah Portion

Torah Portion – Vayikra

By Shlomo Riskin

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.

Herein lies the 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 from a family into a nation; Bamidbar [Numbers], the desert sojourn of a newly freed people who had to learn the responsibilities of managing a nation-state before entering their promised homeland; and Devarim [Deuteronomy], the farewell words and legacy of Moses, the agent of Hashem.

But what is the significance of Vayikra – God “calling out” to Moses? 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? The answer lies in the concluding words of the last portion of the Book of Exodus: “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)

In last week’s commentary, we read the words of the Ramban (Nahmanides), explaining how the Book of Exodus concludes the Jewish exile with the glory of the Lord and filling the Tabernacle. Was Moses not the supreme individual who came closer to the Divine than anyone else; whose active intellect actually kissed the active intellect of the Shechina? Then why is Moses forbidden from entering the Tent of Meeting? Moses should have entered straightaway!

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 Himself and human beings. We must serve Him, but not beyond that which He commands us to do. We dare not go beyond the laws He ordains that we perform.

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.

This is why, further on in Leviticus, God metes out a 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 explains this tragic occurrence, 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 in interpersonal human relationships, “You shall do what is right and good” (Deut. 6:18), 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, which too early may overtake the sober humility of the all-too eager zealot.”

Thus, 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.

Indeed, the Midrash (Tanhuma 37) teaches that the small amount of unused ink which should have been utilized on the regular-sized alef of the Torah 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).

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