Todd Berman

Listening to the Call

It is often quoted in the name of Rabbi Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter of Ger (1847–1905), the second Gerrer Rebbe and author of the Sefat Emet, that God constantly calls out for us to join in relationship with the Divine. The greatness of the patriarch Abraham was not that God called him, argues the Sefat Emet, but that Abraham heard the constant call. In truth, I think the source of the notion that God constantly calls us goes at least as far back as the Ba’al Shem Tov.

Let me explain.

Rabbi Menachem Nochum Twersky of Chernobyl (1730-1787) studied with both the R. Israel Ba’al Shem Tov (1690-1760) and Rabbi Dov Ber, the great Maggid of Mezeritch (d. 1772). His work, Meor Eynaim, reflects the Torah he learned from the founders of Hassidut. Rabbi Menachem Nochum points out a surprising formulation in the first verse of VaYikra. The book begins,

“ ויקרא אל משה וידבר ה’ אליו מאהל מועד לאמר”

Several anomalies present themselves. The subject of the first verb, “VaYikra,” (an He Called) is hidden, while in the second, “VaYedaber HaShem,” (An God spoke) God’s name appears. Why is God hidden at the beginning of the verse and present in the latter part? In the Masoretic tradition, the Alef in “VaYikra” appears smaller than the other letters in the verse making the work look like “VaYikar.” “VaYikra” means He called whereas VaYikar can have a less positive connotation, something like “chanced upon” (see the end of Rashi ad loc.) or “it happened by accident,” something like the action happened capriciously as the commentators to Deuteronomy 25:18 suggest.

So why is the subject hidden in the weaker phrase?

Before examining Rabbi Menachem Nochum’s answer, we need to understand a central element of the Hassidic revolution in theology. Even if we don’t understand all the technical-mystical notions, we can still comprehend  that Hassidut offers us a new way to look at ourselves and those around us.

Classic kabbalistic texts such as the Zohar and the teachings of the Rabbi Isaac Luria, the famed sixteenth century mystic knows as the holy Arizal, discuss or describe God and events taking place in the heavenly sphere. The technical kabbalistic notions that God emanated and contracted relate to the Divine realm. The term “tzimtzum,” popularized by the Arizal, describes the need for the Divine to create a void or space within Divinity Itself to make room, as it were, for the emanation which leads to the reality we, humans, experience. Hassidut retooled kabbalistic terminology and refocused the discussion toward the human plane. Not only did God not create a true void, which is only a metaphor, but God contracted the Divine-self within the human soul.

This means that each of us contains a spark of the Divine within us. What in Yiddish is known as the “pintele yid.” The piece of God within our soul is not always apparent to us. Yet, suggests Rabbi Menachem Nochum, when a person attempts to sin, sometimes, something unknown psychologically pulls the person back. We reach the precipice but refrain from jumping because something deep inside us is calling out to us. That something, suggests Rabbi Menachem Nochum, is the spark of the Divine hidden deep within our soul calling us back to Him. If  only we pay attention, we can hear the call.

The Ba’al Shem Tov and his students viewed the events impacting the great personalities of the past as eternal elements that the Torah points out to us. The stories are almost pre-figurations of events in our own lives. In the verse first, God, in holy hiddenness, calls, yet we do not recognize the voice as that of God. Just as the subject of the call to Moses was hidden, we imagine it is our mind or emotions warning us, pulling us back from error. If, however, we open our hearts, we can hear God’s voice. We need to open ourselves up to recognizing the Holy One calling out from within every one of us.

At first, “VaYikra el Moshe” and only then “VaYidaber HaShem.” According to Rabbi Menachem Nochum, the unrecognized or unclarified call deep within our psyche first moves us in a positive direction. Once we take notice of the source in our soul, we hear that God was calling us all along.

The novelty of early Hassidut, which was carried along in later versions by Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kutzk and his intellectual inheritor Rabbi Yehuda Aryeh Leib Alter, was the idea that God is immanent and constantly accessible. Some spiritual wellsprings have run dry in our day and age. Yet if we open our hearts and minds, especially our spiritual ears, we can still hear the constant and consistent Divine call.

About the Author
Rabbi Berman is the Associate Director at Yeshivat Eretz HaTzvi. In addition, he has held numerous posts in education from the high school level through adult education. He founded the Jewish Learning Initiative (JLI) at Brandeis University and served as rabbinic advisory to the Orthodox community there for several years. Previously, he was a RaM at Midreshet Lindenbaum where he also served as the Rav of the dormitory.