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18.03.2015 10:10    Comments: 0    Categories: Weekly Parashah      Tags: torah  shabbat  parashah  vayikra  

The Nature of G-d Speaking to Man

Leviticus begins with a phrase, one of its kind, in which the Lord calls to Moses before speaking to him: The Lord called to Moses and spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting, saying” (Lev. 1:1). Looking at the homiletic and exegetical literature, we see two different approaches to understanding the significance of this expression.

One Approach:

Now all Israel were standing before Mount Sinai, and saying: If we hear the voice of the Lord…any more, then we shall die (Deut. 5:22), whilst Moses heard the voice by himself and remained alive. You have proof that this is so, in that out of all of them He called only Moses; wherefore it is said, And the Lord called unto Moses.[1]

The word of the Lord was voiced to Moses because the Lord deemed him worthy of hearing the words, while not every human being was worthy of this. Moses’ unique virtue is spelled out in the following midrash:

So used Hillel to say: ‘My self-abasement is my exaltation, my self-exaltation is my abasement.’ What is the proof?—He that raiseth himself is to [be made to] sit down, he that abaseth himself is to be [raised so that he is] seen (Ps. 113:5-6).[2] You find that when the Holy One, blessed be He, revealed Himself to Moses from the midst of the thorn-bush, the latter hid his face from Him, as it is said, And Moses hid his face, etc. (Ex. 3:6). Because of this, the Holy One, blessed be He, said to him, Come now therefore, and I will send thee unto Pharaoh (Ex. 3:10)…to say, ‘If you will not deliver them, no one else will deliver them.’ At the Red Sea he stood aside, and the Holy One, blessed be He, said to him Lift thou up thy rod, and stretch out thy hand over the sea, and divide it (Ex. 14:15), as much as to say, ‘If you will not divide it, no one else will divide it.’ At Sinai, too, Moses stood aside. The Holy One, blessed be He, said to him: Come up to the Lord, you and Aaron (Ex. 24:1), as much as to say, if you will not come up, no one else will. At the Tent of Meeting, he stood aside; and the Holy One, blessed be He, said to him: How long will you keep yourself low? The hour waits but for you! You have proof that this is so, for of them all, the divine word called to none but Moses, as it is written, The Lord called to Moses.

This midrash emphasizes Moses’ modesty, not seeing himself worthy of the Lord’s singling him out. The call to Moses in all the events mentioned by the midrash is indicative of the special place Moses had in the Lord’s eyes, from which we conclude that “The Lord called to Moses” and to Moses alone.

The divine call to Moses also attests to Moses’ humility, for he would not enter the Tent of Meeting until the Lord called to him, even though he had been put in charge of erecting the Tabernacle. This behavior also attests to his exceptional modesty, as Scripture says: “Now Moses was a very humble man, more so than any other man on earth” (Num. 12:3). We conclude, according to this approach, that not just any person can receive the divine word, and not just any person is privileged to have the Lord call to him, but only those specially chosen by G-d.

Further proof of Moses’ uniqueness lies in the Lord’s voice miraculously not being heard beyond the Tent of Meeting, as Rashi notes, relying on the extensive midrashic material on the verse at hand[3] and summing it up in a single sentence: “The Voice would resound and reach his ears, while all of Israel would hear nothing.”[4]

The Second Approach

Underlying this approach is the basic notion that the word of G-d is given to those who suitable prepare themselves to receive it. Preparing oneself outwardly by washing and avoiding impurity does not suffice unless accompanied by deep spiritual preparation. At Mount Sinai the Holy One, blessed be He, spoke His words to all Israel, but the people chose not to hear the voice of the Lord firsthand, but rather from the mouth of Moses:[5]

“You speak to us,” they said to Moses, “and we will obey; but let not G-d speak to us, lest we die.” Moses answered the people, “Be not afraid; for G-d has come only in order to test you, and in order that the fear of Him may be ever with you, so that you do not go astray.” So the people remained at a distance, while Moses approached the thick cloud where G-d was.

When we consider the behavior of the frightened people who withdrew to a distance, in contrast to Moses’ opposite reaction, approaching closer to the source of the Lord’s thunderous voice, we can understand the position taken by the second approach, as formulated by Ibn Ezra in his commentary on this verse:[6]

Since Scripture had already mentioned that the people stood at a distance (v. 15), the verse, “So the people remained at a distance” is to remind us that out of their great fear upon hearing the voice of G-d the people fell back and stood at a distance. But Moses did just the opposite of them, for he approached the thick cloud.

Moses had the requisite preparedness to receive the word of G-d. This preparedness is composed of two elements, one an innate part of the human soul, and the other an acquired trait which a person must work to develop to the level necessary in order to take in the word of G-d, as Meshekh Hokhmah[7] writes on this verse:

We must consider in what way Moses perfected himself to receive the Torah, for Moses was a great figure even prior to receiving the Torah which he received by virtue of having perfected himself, and how receiving the Torah affected him. This is in line with the philosophers’ notion that human beings perfect themselves through obligation and necessity, that as their intellect becomes stronger they comprehend that which can be attained with their innate intelligence and then are privileged to receive divine intelligence, while their soul constantly cleaves to the active intellect, always adhering to it firmly, and thus they attain the level of the eternal in their soul. Accordingly, only one person in several generations will ever achieve such perfection.

The basic good qualities that a person receives at birth are not a sufficient guarantee of achieving the lofty status required to receive the word of G-d. Only indefatigable work to improve one’s virtues, realizing one’s good potential and perfecting it to the utmost, can make one privileged to receive the dearest of all: true closeness to G-d.

A similar idea is expressed in the commentary by Or Ha-Hayyim[8] on the first verse in this week’s reading:

“The Lord called to Moses”—perhaps Scripture intended to inform us of the great power of the Almighty, that He can call in a loud voice yet not be heard save by whomever He wishes [or: by whoever wishes].

In the Hebrew, the last few words of the above quote are ambiguous and can be interpreted to mean either that the word of the Lord is only heard by those whom the Lord wishes to hear Him, or that only someone who wishes to hear the word of G-d will be privileged to hear it.[9] As we said, a person’s wishes must be accompanied by continuous actions of drawing close to G-d in devotion and awe; otherwise, the person’s wishes will not produce the desired result.

As we begin the book of Leviticus, a book devoted to purity, it is befitting that we remember the most outstanding characteristic of Moses: humility. Perhaps the miniscule alef at the end of the word va-yikra (=He called) at the beginning of this book is to instruct us about humility, the necessary precondition for receiving the word of G-d, as Tractate Ta`anit 7a notes:

Rabbi Hanina b. Ida said: Why are the words of the Torah likened unto water—as it is written, “Ho, all who are thirsty, come for water” (Isa. 55:1)? This is to teach you, just as water flows from a higher level to a lower, so too the words of the Torah endure only with him who is meekminded.

Translated by Rachel Rowen

* Dr. Yair Barkai is head of the Lifschitz College of Education in Jerusalem.

[1] Leviticus Rabbah, 1.1. Freedman and Simon, eds., Soncino Press, New York 1983, p. 3.

[2] To further explore Hillel’s remarks, see the commentary by the eminent Algerian rabbi, Simeon ben Tzemah Duran (1361-1444), on on Avot 4.4: “Rabbi Levitas of Jabneh says: Be exceedingly humble of spirit, since the hope of man is but the worm.”

[3] In Torat Cohanim, Nedava 2.9, and in Midrash Tanhuma, Leviticus 1, to wit: “And likewise it says that when Moses would come to the Tent of Meeting to speak with Him he would hear the Voice speaking to him, the very same voice that he had heard when the Torah was given, as it is written: The voice of the Lord breaks cedars (Ps. 29). That voice would speak at each and every utterance and each thing said and commanded; lest you say that the Voice was heard by Israel outside [the Tent of Meeting]. Therefore it says, ‘he heard the voice,’ to teach us that he alone heard it. And since He would speak in a strong voice, why would they not hear? Because the Holy One, blessed be He, decreed that His utterances come out go to Moses, and the Holy One, blessed be He, made a path along which the Voice would travel until it reached Moses and would not be heard on either side along the way, as it is written: When He fixed the weight of the winds (Job 28:25), so that each and every utterance that comes out of the mouth of the Holy One, blessed be He, each be weighed out; and it says: And a course for the thunder (Job 28:26) [the same Hebrew word means both voices and thunder]. For the Holy One, blessed be He, made a path for the Voice to reach Moses alone, as it is written: The Lord called to Moses and spoke to him. It was heard by him and by none other. Hence it says: mighty creatures who do His bidding (Ps. 103:20).”

[4] The account of the Lord’s first revelation to Samuel, in his youth (I Sam., ch. 3), attests to the Lord choosing the person who is fit to hear His word, for there, too, the priest Eli slept in the same place as Samuel but did not hear the call of the Lord since it was destined only for Samuel, as also Eli himself understood and instructed Samuel how to respond the next time the Lord might call to him.

[5] Ex. 20:16-17.

[6] Ibn Ezra’s short commentary, Exodus, chapter 20.

[7] Rabbi Meir Simha ha-Cohen of Dvinsk (1843-1926), one of the great rabbis of Eastern Europe in the generation before the Holocaust.

[8] Rabbi Hayyim ben `Atar (1696-1743), Morocco and Jerusalem, biblical exegete, kabbalist, and halakhic authority.

[9] As follows from the story of Rabbi Jose who entered one of the ruins of Jerusalem to pray (Berakhot 3a): “‘I heard a divine voice, cooing like a dove…’ And he [Elijah] said to me: By your life! Not in this moment alone does it so exclaim, but thrice each day does it exclaim thus!” Who hears it? The person who attunes himself towards it.

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