Vayikra: Choose Your Own Adventure
This week, we are beginning Leviticus, and its Hebrew name, Vayikra, is also the name of this week’s parashah. וַיִּקְרָ֖א means “and he called.” It’s something of a mysterious word in the text as we have it. In the NJPS translation, Leviticus begins this way:
1 The LORD called to Moses and spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting, saying: 2 Speak to the Israelite people, and say to them …
That’s not really what the Hebrew says, however. The Hebrew does say that YHWH spoke to Moses; what it doesn’t say is that YHWH “called to Moses and spoke to him.” Here is Lev 1:1 in Hebrew and then in a more literal translation:
וַיִּקְרָ֖א אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֑ה וַיְדַבֵּ֤ר יְ׳הוָה֙ אֵלָ֔יו מֵאֹ֥הֶל מוֹעֵ֖ד לֵאמֹֽר׃
And he called to Moses, and YHWH spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting, saying.
That’s the very beginning of the book: “and he called to Moses.” What is the antecedent of that pronoun? — not even a pronoun in the Hebrew but encoded into the verb. Who is doing that verb vayikra? It’s calling out for a subject and the Hebrew does not have one.
In contrast, the beginning of the book of Numbers is much more regular:
וַיְדַבֵּ֨ר יְ׳הוָ֧ה אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֛ה בְּמִדְבַּ֥ר סִינַ֖י בְּאֹ֣הֶל מוֹעֵ֑ד בְּאֶחָד֩ לַחֹ֨דֶשׁ הַשֵּׁנִ֜י בַּשָּׁנָ֣ה הַשֵּׁנִ֗ית לְצֵאתָ֛ם מֵאֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרַ֖יִם לֵאמֹֽר׃
And YHWH spoke to Moses in the wilderness of [be-midbar] Sinai, at the Tent of Meeting, on the first day of the second month of the second year after they left Egypt, saying.
That’s quite regular. In Biblical Hebrew verb-subject-object order, va-y’dabber YHWH el Moshe ‘YHWH spoke to Moses’. Here in Leviticus, the book starts, “He called to Moses and YHWH spoke to him.” I can only ask, in the words that the founding editor of the New Yorker, Harold Ross, used to scribble in the margins of manuscripts, “Who he?”
So who is he?
Well, there are a number of ways to approach this problem. One of them is that a third-person verb without a subject is an impersonal verb, often used as the Hebrew equivalent of the passive in English. A good example is Gen 48:1.
- in Hebrew: וַיֹּ֣אמֶר לְיוֹסֵ֔ף הִנֵּ֥ה אָבִ֖יךָ חֹלֶ֑ה
- literally: “and [someone] told Joseph, ‘Your father is sick.’”
- NJPS: “Joseph was told, ‘Your father is ill.’”
So va-yikra el moshe could simply be “Moses was called.” Moses was called, and YHWH spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting. That’s a perfectly good grammatical explanation. You still have to wonder why it’s being phrased that way. The mystery is even greater if you look carefully at the Hebrew — not in every edition, but in a good printed Bible and certainly in a Torah scroll.
In the traditional text, that first word, וַיִּקְרָ֖א, is supposed to be written with a tiny א at the end, not the same size as the other letters, but smaller. (You can read more about this in the late James Diamond’s book Scribal Secrets.) If you read this verb without the aleph, as ויקר, those four letters spell a different verb: not va-yikra but va-yiker, not קרא kara ‘to call’ but קרה karah ‘to happen’.
If we read Leviticus with this verb instead, it says, “Something happened to Moses, and YHWH spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting.” How might we understand this?
- YHWH called to him coincidentally one morning, which is not a very satisfying explanation of when God began to give Moses all the rules for putting up a Tabernacle.
- Something Happened, with a capital H, to Moses, some mysterious event after which YHWH spoke all these things, which is more emotionally satisfying except that we don’t know what it is and we don’t know why we’re being told about it.
What I would like to suggest is that this is another great place to start reading before the beginning of the weekly section — which in this case means starting before the beginning of the biblical book — in order to read this verse in some kind of context. The context would be what we were reading last week, the end of Exodus 40, when the Tabernacle is completed.
There are a couple of verses where they explain that the Israelites would travel when and only when the cloud lifted off the Tabernacle, but what actually happens at the very end of Exodus 40, as you remember, is that the “Presence” of YHWH, the כבוד kavod, fills the Tabernacle. If you skip past the parenthetical verses 36–38 and keep reading, what you see is this:
Exod 40:33 … Moses finished the job, 34 and the cloud covered the Tent of Meeting, and the Presence of YHWH filled the Tabernacle. 35 Moses could not go into the Tent of Meeting, because the cloud had tabernacled upon it and the Presence of YHWH filled the Tabernacle Lev 1:1 and called to Moses, and YHWH spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting.
We said last week that those parenthetical verses sounded as if they were meant to lead into the book of Numbers; if we skip them, the first word of Leviticus makes sudden sense. We immediately begin the instructions for performing the sacrifices and, eventually, for keeping the sacred things clean: the rules about purity and impurity. What could be more natural once you make a Tabernacle? Nobody likes to read the manual, but if you do have a Tabernacle, you need instructions about how to use it.
So why are Exodus and Leviticus separate books? The Torah somehow has to integrate the story of the Israelites escaping from slavery in Egypt, the greatest superpower on the planet, with the religious drama of constructing a dwelling that will put the escapees in direct contact with the being that created the universe. These are two very different kinds of drama.
The Torah as we have it today gives Exodus a sort of “Choose Your Own Adventure” ending. Here are your choices:
- Read on to the end of Exodus and then jump to Numbers to follow the plot.
- Skip Exod 40:36–38 and continue smoothly into Leviticus, where you will see the Presence that just moved into the Tabernacle call to Moses.
- Read it the way we have it — the way we do read it — and let “[Someone] called to Moses” offer an opening to your own literary or spiritual creativity.
Next week, more of those promised instructions for taking advantage of the Presence of YHWH safely.