Parshat Vayikrah: Is This the Party With Whom I Am Speaking?
At this moment in time, so many of us rely on our electronics — specifically on our phones. I didn’t grow up with cell phones, I grew up with handsets that fit into cradles that were plugged into walls. The telephone would sit on a table, or was somehow screwed onto a wall. There was a permanence to a telephone. The idea of ripping it off the wall and putting it in your pocket wasn’t even science fiction, it was science ridiculous.
I can’t remember the very first time I answered a phone. I do remember not knowing that if you put the handset back in its cradle it hangs up on the other person. I remember being shown to put the handset on the table next to the cradle, and then go find the person asked for on the phone. I don’t remember when I switched from finding the person in the house to holding the handset and shouting their name as loud as I could. Phone etiquette has come a long way.
When I was in high school, I had a summer job as a receptionist in a law firm. I was told to always wear skirts, arrive early, make the coffee, and manage a switchboard with ten incoming lines that funneled to ten different people. It was made clear that every call must be answered, no one should receive a ‘busy’ signal. The moment the office opened, all ten lines rang immediately and didn’t let up. By then, phones had advanced from ‘ringing’ to ‘burbling’. I learned to answer all of them by putting everyone on hold and then try to transfer the calls one by one. Half the time the switchboard was busy with lawyers internally transferring the calls to the correct person after I guessed at someone’s extension. I didn’t make it all the way through the summer, which was a blessing since I began hearing the phone burbling in my sleep.
Eventually we arrive at a place where no one could ever receive a ‘busy’ signal, since every call is answered, or forwarded, or given to a message link, or we listen to music endlessly… The message is clear, no one is ever unavailable.
Because we will always be reached by the telephone that moved from our walls to our pockets, we get to choose what sound we will hear — our ringtones. If my electronic device can reach me whenever it seems to want to, then I get to choose how annoying that sound will be. Let’s not kid ourselves, that’s a double edged sword. Gone is the jarring, fast paced ringing, and in comes my favourite song clip. Unfortunately, I can’t count the number of calls I’ve missed because I’m singing with my ring tone or I’m dancing over to get my phone. Now I need a special ringtone for people whose calls I never want to miss. Soon I’ll need a special file on my phone that reminds me which person is connected to which ringtone because my phone has become the house that Jack built.
And I haven’t even touched on the fact that my computer is now accepting ‘Zoom’ calls.
I’m fascinated that all of these nuances of reaching out to each other is captured in the first verses of this week’s Torah portion, parshat Vayikrah. It is the beginning of the book of Leviticus, though the Hebrew name for the book means ‘And He Called’. It begins with God calling Moses. All the commentaries discuss why that is a special moment, since God talks to Moses all the time, but they note that this isn’t God speaking, this is God calling. There are various ways we are told that God reaches out to Moses: calling (vayikrah), talking (vayidaber), saying (vayomer) — they’re not synonyms.
When God ‘talks’ with Moses, it is an invitation for dialogue, when God ‘says’ something, it is instructional, but what happens when God ‘calls’? The commentaries explain that God has presented a model to us that we should learn to use with each other. God ‘calls’ Moses by name, and from that we learn that when we reach out to initiate contact with someone, we should address them by name. The conversation may proceed into one of ‘speaking’ or ‘telling’ but that doesn’t change the initial reaching out.
As the verses progress, God has immediately detailed the beginnings of the laws of sacrifice. In other words, a part of the Torah we no longer do, haven’t done for thousands of years and don’t anticipate ever doing again. In fact, the English title, Leviticus, reflects that most of the book is dedicated to the laws of the Levites — the sacrificial laws. But, the word ‘sacrifice’ is an English word that has no Hebrew equivalent. In Hebrew, in the Torah, the word is ‘korban’, which comes from the word ‘nearness’. The word ‘sacrifice’ should actually be translated as ‘a drawing near offering’. Moses is to teach Israel how to draw near to God, and it involves reaching out for a moment of connection. Interestingly, the verses are set up to say that God reaches out to someone, specifically someone, in a way that speaks to them. They may choose to reach back and draw near. Now the book of Leviticus is timeless.
One medieval commentary says that ‘calling to’ means only that person will hear it. In other words, Aaron is probably standing right next to Moses but he can’t hear the conversation. It’s the equivalent of a biblical phone call.
In our world today, we are still challenged with not being able to sit together in person, not being able to hug each other, and Pesach is fast approaching. Within the first verses of our Torah reading, we are reminded that we never stop reaching out to each other, we learn to personalize it with a name, and make it relevant to the person we’re connecting with. God clearly told Moses that when you reach out to connect with someone, chances are they may reach back. That is the open door we can all step through, and build from there. The laws in this book also include how to build a society that sits on values of connection, community, fairness and equal rights. It all starts with reaching out and inviting the response. Today, that could be as seemingly simple as a phone call.
Registration is open for our spring courses. Join us for 6-weeks beginning April 7 as we study the story of Noah’s Ark in Reserve Me An Aisle Seat: A Look At Noah’s Ark.