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Rachel Sharansky Danziger
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God’s call to Moses – and us

Even if animal sacrifice was meaningful to our ancestors, how do bloody, flayed, dismembered limbs make sense today? (Vayikra)
A burnt offering on the altar. (Screenshot)
A burnt offering on the altar. (Screenshot)

If we rush across the threshold into Vayikra, Leviticus, we stumble, almost immediately, into dead and torn flesh.

Blood comes first, though. it is “dashed” against “all the sides of the altar” by the fifth verse of this week’s parsha.

Flaying and cutting follow, and then the head and the suet are laid “on the wood that is on the fire that is on the altar” (Leviticus 1:8). Entrails and legs join the fray one verse later. By the end of the first chapter, we encounter a dead sheep and a dead goat, in addition to the dismembered bull from the chapter’s beginning. We finish it with a headless bird, severed by a priest.

As we move into the second chapter, we find more gore to wade through, and more arrangement of once-living flesh to examine, as the priests lay the animals’ limbs upon the altar just so.

It is easy to wade through these verses and chapters and gore and feel alienated. What does all this dead flesh have to do with us? We might recognize that the offering meant something more to our ancestors. We might even successfully imagine how they must have felt, when they provided their offerings — the living and breathing representations of their contrition or gratitude or joy — to the priests. But even if the sacrifices used to be emotionally meaningful, how do these severed heads and flayed cadavers fit into our modern experience of the Jewish faith?

We might try and daydream our way through these chapters. We might dwell, in our minds, over our far more pleasant journeys in Genesis and Exodus. Wasn’t it grand, walking into the verses where God puts together the entire world — grander, at least, than learning of the exact way in which the priests should take a cow apart? Wasn’t it more obviously relevant to read the account of the Jewish people on the verge of their enslavement and redemption than to read a list of instructions that, even at the time of the Tabernacle, only priests truly had to understand?

We might look to upcoming passages somewhat wistfully and try to rush forward toward less alienating stories. But there’s no great relief to be found ahead: chapters 8-10 briefly forge into narrative, relay a detailed account of the seven days that preceded the inauguration of the Tabernacle, and share the shocking tale of the death of Aaron’s eldest two sons on that otherwise auspicious day. But the book then delves straight back into long lists of legal instructions that cover such topics as ritual impurity, the exact ways to deal with tzara’at (a skin disease likened to leprosy), forbidden foods, and forbidden sexual relationships. While some of these laws are still practiced by Orthodox Jews today, those lists are largely impractical for today’s world, and worse, they cannot boast of appealing sparkling storytelling.

But it would be a mistake to dismiss Leviticus as a book that is of interest only to a small subset of people with specialized interests or occupations. Leviticus indeed includes instructions for priests and lists of prohibitions that we may or may not live by today. But at its core, it is also a story about a deeply human and deeply universal experience, one that is relevant to all classes and at all eras. That story, hidden though it is, should matter to all — not merely to the Tabernacle’s priests or today’s observant Jews. The key to this story, the hint that unveils it, is hidden in its threshold.

* * *

“The Lord called to Moses and spoke to him.” (Leviticus 1:1)

Most verbs that precede God’s communications in the Hebrew Bible, like “said” or “commanded,” are designed to draw attention to the speech that is to follow. But the word “Vayikra” — “And He called” — does not directly precede speech. It is separated from God’s actual words by the more traditional “and spoke to him” that follows it. “Vayikra” stands alone, without an object, without its own content to convey. It highlights, instead, the act of calling itself.

If we read too quickly, we might miss this moment. The words “and spoke to him” follow directly on the heels of the call and shift our attention to the speech that is to come. But if we pause between them, if we allow ourselves to examine God’s call in all its content-less glory, can we help but be struck by all that these words imply?

By calling out, God does both more and less than convey His message: He conveys His attitude towards Moses. Rashi saw this “call” as a sign of affection: “All oral communications of the Lord to Moses… were preceded by a call… It is a way of expressing affection, the mode used by the ministering angels when addressing each other.”

Regardless of whether we accept that the call denotes affection in particular, there is no question that it singles Moses out, and establishes a space of mutual attention between God and Moses. This space is exclusive. It comes hand in hand with personal acknowledgement, and does not fully exist until Moses willingly brings himself into it, thus turning a call into a dialogue. In other words, God is creating more than a conversational space: He is inviting Moses into a form of intimacy.

If God’s call created a conversational enclosure, its physical setting gave this enclosure a hold in the concrete. Before we hear God’s actual message, we learn that He called Moses “from the tent of meeting.” Contrary to popular imagination, God does not call from “out there,” from a setting that might do justice to His infinite vastness. Rather, He calls from within, inviting first Moses, and then all of us, to join Him on the inside:

Speak to the Israelite people, and say to them: When any of you presents an offering of cattle to the LORD (literally: bring close an offering to God), he shall choose his offering from the herd or from the flock…. He shall bring it to the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, for acceptance in his behalf before the LORD.” (Leviticus 1:2-3)

With these words, God extends to the Israelites an invitation into a variation on His intimacy with Moses. They too can come to the entrance of the Tent of Meeting. They too can draw closer to God. But if Moses is invited to draw closer by paying attention, they are invited to draw closer by bringing an offering, described here for the first time with the verb “lehakriv” — to bring close.

The people of the Bible brought offerings to God from the days of Cain and Abel onwards, but until the second verse of Leviticus, these offerings were never called “korban.” At times, they brought an “olah” (a word that implies that the offering goes up — a burnt-offering, consumed in full on the altar). At others, they brought a “mincha” (a word that draws our attention to the act of laying out the offering, this time from grain). But only from this intimacy-forging moment on the threshold of Leviticus do we start talking of “korban” — the noun that, according to some commentators, is derived from the verb “to bring close.”

This terminological innovation makes sense: until the creation of the Tabernacle, talking of bringing an offering “close” to an omnipresent God would have been absurd. But I believe that the word “korban” denotes more than physical closeness. Until this point, different people in the Bible brought offerings of their own volition, and God either accepted them or He did not. Only on rare occasions did God command individuals to bring Him offerings, and thus, only on rare occasions could people be confident that God both desired, and would accept, their gifts. In the latter cases, however, the offerings were more an expression of God’s will than human initiative. Offerings were either an uncertain application to God, or a form of compliance.

In the second verse of Leviticus, God opens the possibility for a new category of ritual, one that combines a strong emphasis on human initiative with confidence in the desirability of the offerings in God’s eye. God instructs the Israelites on the “how” of the offerings — but the offerings are still theirs to bring, as expressions of their contrition, pleading, joy. In doing so, God offers the Israelites a safe and routine way to merge their will with His, and feel safe, at home, with God.

When you note this invitation into intimacy, the book’s pedantic lists and gory details grow ripe with deeper possibilities. How does this or that detail foster intimacy with the Divine? (For great answers to these questions, see Dr. Avivah Zornberg’s The Secret Order of Intimacy)

The offerings become a language of closeness, the purity laws — a way to maintain boundaries within the relationship. The catastrophe of Nadav and Avihu’s deaths becomes a warning against usurping God’s part of the intimate conversation, and the commandments that anchor holiness in daily life are a way to carry our intimacy with God out of “His” home and into ours. This, perhaps, is the book’s most enduring legacy; for even though we no longer have a Tabernacle, we can all still strive to make our own lives into an arena for, and worthy of, intimacy with God.

We can all listen for His “Vayikra” — and maybe even call out to Him ourselves.

About the Author
Rachel is a Jerusalem-born writer and educator who's in love with her city's vibrant human scene. She writes about Judaism, history, and life in Israel for the Times of Israel and other online venues, and explores storytelling in the Hebrew bible as a teacher in Maayan, Torah in Motion, and Matan.
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