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Boing Brings Out the Best Sermon

Sermon by Rabbi Melanie Aron

March 19, 2015

Two weeks ago I was reading a contemporary commentary on Parashat Vayakhel, one of the last portions of the book of Exodus. It began by complaining that this was one of the driest portions in the whole Torah, being a list of materials and dimensions for the tabernacle, that duplicated material found in Parashat Terumah.

As I read that I thought of Vivian and her Torah portion Vayikra. While the 16 opening chapters of Leviticus were probably very useful to the young priests in training in ancient times, and scholars do believe that they were originally used for this purpose, it is rare that people rave about a training manual.

And yet, this third book of the Torah, was where education began in ancient times. Young children started their study of the Bible not with the well known and more exciting stories of Genesis but with this book. Further, it was this book, perhaps because of its lack of relevance for the last almost 2,000 years since the Temple was destroyed in the year 70 C.E. , that has called forth the most interesting commentaries in an exercise of Jewish intellectual gymnastics.

Let’s consider the opening sentence of the book of Leviticus- the ancient rabbis did. In fact they found it worthy of 18 pages of commentary in Midrash Rabbah. They were bothered first of all by the name of the book.

In general books and portions take their names from the first word, but if it is something routine then they ignore that which is formulaic and go on to the next word. So for example, many portions begin, “Veyedaber Adonai el Moshe leymore- God spoke to Moses saying”, but they take their name from the next phrase.

Here though the text begins- Vayikra el Mosheh, and called to Moses. Why is called so much more interesting than said? Why did it become the name of a whole book?  If we had been inclined to ignore this first word, the scribes further draw our attention to this phrase by making that first alef, in Vayikra, tiny, in every single Torah scroll.

Why is calling significant? Well think about it, isn’t it weird, even rude, just to begin talking? When you walk into a room, you acknowledge the other person before you begin giving them a series of instructions. Its polite, its derech eretz. When God does it, it speaks a powerful message about recognizing the other as a person, not just the object of whatever we want to communicate.

God called to Moses, using the name he had been given. Given by who? Not by God, or even by his Jewish parents. Mosheh is the name he was given by Pharoah’s daughter, who drew him out of the water.

According to the rabbis, this respect for his given name, teaches us not only respect for women, but also respect for those born outside of our Jewish community. Batyah, the name the rabbis give to Pharoah’s daughter, is mentioned briefly in the Torah, but becomes the focus of a much longer story in the midrash, and not coincidentally in the Koran. In the midrash, she converts to Judaism and follows the Israelites into the wilderness, unwilling to be separated from her beloved son.

Moses is referred to in ten different ways in the Torah, but when God calls him, God choses this name. Why? Rabbi Joshua of Sichnin explains in the name of Rabbi Levi:  The Holy One , blessed be God, said to Batyah the daughter of Pharoah: “Moses was not your son, yet you called him your son. You did this even though you were not an Israelite, therefore I will call you my daughter, Bat Yah the daughter of Adonai.”

The small alef, at the end of the word Vayikra, does more than remind us not to ignore this word. It makes us think about the difference between something just happening by accident, Vayikar, and being called, vayikrah. When someone takes on a very important job, they will sometimes speak about feeling called to take that position. They may feel called to respond to some need they see in the community, or to step up to a challenge. Moses was called twice- once at the burning bush, where he left his former vocation of being a shepherd of his father in law Jethro’s sheep, to become the shepherd of the community of Israel, and in our Torah portion, where he receives these laws and instructions. In Latin the word vocation comes from the word calling “vocare”.  Rabbis and cantors do not usually speak about God calling them individually to assume this role, but, in the best of circumstances, this is not just a job that one does 9-5 to bring home a paycheck but something more – a calling. Seeing Moses fulfilling his vocation, reminds us that we are each called to things in our lives and become the best version of ourselves when we rise to our calling.

A very dry portion has its downsides, but for those who interpret the Torah it also has its richness. Even a word can remind us of the importance of acknowledging others as people, and not just using them as things. It can model respect for those who were once not fully included in our tradition, women, and those who entered our community. Finally, it can challenge us to find that which we are meant to do, to make our contribution to the world.


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