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Vayikra 5783                  March 25, 2023

Rabbi Randall J. Konigsburg

Shabbat Shalom

The third book of the Bible, Vayikra/Leviticus begins with a call to Moshe Rabbenu. Perhaps it was necessary to call Moshe because he was outside the Mishkan. If you recall, last week, as the Mishkan was assembled, the cloud of God’s glory filled the tent and there was no room for Moshe inside. God would have to “call” Moshe to join God in the Mishkan, the Tent of Meeting.

There is an oddity here at the very beginning of the book. The call to Moshe is “different.” The first word of the book, the word that gives Vayikra its name, has four normal sized letters, but the final letter, the letter “Aleph” is written smaller than the others. Many commentators notice this difference and comment on why it is so small. But that is not the only strange part of this first sentence. The first verse reads, H’ called to Moses and spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting, saying…” What makes this verse strange is that it is a bit redundant. Do we ever say, “I called you because I wanted to speak with you?” Of course, you wanted to speak with me, that is why you called. If we don’t want to speak with someone, we don’t call them. Like I said, it is a bit “odd.”

But to our ancient sages nothing is odd. If there is a redundant sentence, then it must be there for a reason. The first thing that the Midrash reminds us of is that when God wants someone’s attention, God always calls the name twice. We see this at the Burning Bush, where Moses stops to look at the bush that is burning but not being consumed by the flames and he hears God calling him, “Moshe, Moshe.” Therefore, the reason that we have the redundancy in Vayikra is to remind us of the first time that God called Moshe. Why? Why does God need to call Moshe twice when he calls out Moshe’s name?

Here the sages have a difference of opinion. One group of sages notes that the double name is a message of love. After all, we never tire of calling the name of someone we love. We so much enjoy hearing that name that we just can’t get enough of it. Remember the play/movie, “West Side Story” where Tony sings, “Maria, I just met a girl name Maria, and suddenly that name will never be the same again. Maria….” You get the point. Moshe has a very intimate relationship with God. They speak frequently, they have been through plagues and through the sea together. They are the best of friends, at least as best a friend you can be with God. And, in the thirteen attributes of God, we show our love of God when we read, “Adonai, Adonai, El Rachum v’Hanun” … by calling God’s name twice as God reveals Godself to humanity.

But there is more; the doubling of a name can also be an indication of urgency.

Remember when Abraham was about the sacrifice Isaac on the top of the mountain? As Abraham raised the knife, The angel called, “Abraham, Abraham” Don’t kill your son! Perhaps God had the same idea when, at the Burning Bush, God called urgently to Moses, “Moses, Moses! Don’t walk away. I have something important to tell you!” Here, in our Parsha, the redundancy is to project an urgency about this moment. This is the moment when we are to learn the fundamentals of how we express our love of God. It is an urgent call to pay attention.

We too are called to pay attention to God through the prayers that we find in the Siddur in our laps. We are often called to repeat prayers. We say the Shema twice each day and we refer to it several other times in prayer. We recite an Amidah three times a day. We finish every service, weekday, Shabbat, and holidays with the Aleynu. In fact, on Yom Kippur we use the thirteen attributes of God, calling out God’s name twice each time we recite the prayer and we recite it over ten times over the course of the day. When our forgiveness is concerned, there is nothing more urgent and we call upon God with due urgency.

And, at the same time, it is a call of love. We call upon God because we know that God is a kind and merciful God. We know that God loves us. We know that God cares about us and protects us in at least a hundred ways each day. Every blessing we recite is a “thank you” note to God for all the good we receive over the course of a day and over the course of our lives.

The redundancy at the beginning of our Parsha reminds us of the love the flows between us and God and the urgent nature of our needs. The redundancy reminds us of all the different prayers we recite over and over again as a sign of this relationship with God, a relationship that was born with that first call to Moses. It was an urgent call to begin a relationship that would change the way God was worshipped in the world, the way humanity and God would relate to each other forever.

And yet, the Midrash goes on to find another meaning to this redundant sentence at the beginning of the third book of the Bible. The Midrash teaches that the reason Moshe’s name is repeated is because Moshe was the same. He was the same Moshe before the revelation from God as he was after the revelation from God. The relationship with God may have made his face shine so bright that he had to wear a veil, but inside he was the same Moshe. The connection with God may have changed the course of Western Civilization, but it did not change who Moshe was.

We can say the same thing with the doubling of the name of God in the Thirteen Attributes. The Sages teach us that God is letting us know that God is the same before we sin, and God is the same after we sin. Our sins do not change God. Rather it is God that changes us using the qualities of kindness and compassion.

Rabbi Eli Kaunfer from Yeshivat Hadar in New York City explains this concept in his Devar Torah for our Parsha: “In this understanding, the repetition of Moshe’s name is meant to tell us something about Moshe’s constancy.  Moshe’s name did not change even after God revealed Godself to him.  One could have imagined that Moshe would be fundamentally altered by the encounter with God.  But in reality, the essence of Moshe remained the same, before and after God spoke to him.  In our quest for connection to God through prayer and other means, we might imagine that we will fundamentally change as a person as a result of that interaction.  Perhaps God’s revelation would mean we forget our old character and identity completely and become someone entirely new. But this approach sees the goal of the encounter with God to become more fully our existing self.  Moshe remains Moshe.

In one sense, this might seem disappointing.  Isn’t a divine encounter meant to alter us entirely, to change the very essence of our being?  At the same time, there is something comforting in this aspect of the connection.  God is not looking to entirely reform us into a new being; rather God is looking to deepen the traits already existing within us.

I think that Rabbi Kaunfer is correct. We do have a sense that should we have an encounter with God then we should be different, we should have enhanced qualities that will help us as we navigate the stormy waters of life. And yet, we know that we are created by God. We know that we have a place in this universe and we were placed here and in this time by God with what we might need to live our lives. God has no need to change the essence of who we are. We already have the spiritual resources to face whatever may come.

So, what does God add? When we pray and have that spiritual experience, why should we not feel like we have been enhanced, enriched, fundamentally different than what we were before we prayed? The Midrash comes to tell us that this is not a helpful approach to spirituality. The fire of faith already burns within us. Sometimes it grows dim and becomes hard to see. Sometimes we feel strong in our faith, and we feel we are ready to encounter God. What God does add to our life is to fan the flames of faith in our souls, to feel a greater connection to God and to the universe. We are not essentially any different but the encounter has made a difference in the way we look at the world and in the way we act in the world. Our natural kindness and compassion are awakened and we understand better who we are and what will bring meaning to our life and to bring hope into the lives all who we encounter in life. We are still the same person but with a new way of looking at the world and a new understanding of our place in that world.

God does not want us to change who we are. God wants us to enhance our better selves. We don’t get any superpowers because we encounter God. Maybe for some people that is disappointing. But as we begin this third book of the Torah, the sacrifices, the purities and impurities, the understanding of holiness that fill these chapters, they are all designed to help us understand better who we are. The prayers we recite over and over again are to keep reminding us that we already have the powers we need to make a difference, we just need to go out and set an example for others to follow.

Maybe we are waiting for our “burning bush” moment. Maybe we are waiting for God to call our name twice, in love and with urgency. But here, at the beginning of Leviticus, we understand that God is already calling us. God is already speaking to us. God is already reaching out to us. It is all here in this Torah that we study. All we need to do is stop and listen and to let the faith in our hearts burn bright.

May we find our way to hear the voice of God calling, and may we marshal our resources of love, kindness, and compassion to bring to life the holiness of Torah. As we say ….

Amen and Shabbat Shalom

Mon, July 15 2024 9 Tammuz 5784