Vayikra 5781 – Hearing the Call

By: Dr. Joel Roffman

The latest of my forays into my future post-career life is teaching ESL – English as a second language – to a group of adults. While I’m still working, my 70th birthday looms. Time waits for no one. So as I prepare for what comes next in my life, I’ve ventured into several activities as I answer what I perceive as a calling to help make a difference in the lives of people, and in turn, to make the world better. A text message from a woman named Yicel, one of my students. She had been a bit under the weather and I sent her a get-well message. Yicel’s text said in part, “Thank you Mr. Joel for teach me.” Her grammar showed the need for me to, indeed, teach her. This, then, is one of my callings.

The title of today’s parashah – Vayikra – has proven to be the quintessential grounds for arguments in the Torah and has been the basis for D’vrei Torah for generations. If you look at that first word of the parashah, it is Vayikra – a calling. Or at least that’s what it means when the aleph is put at the end of the word. But as you will notice if you have a chumash, the aleph at the end of the word is written in a much smaller font, almost as though it is either optional, or maybe to draw attention to what the word would mean without the aleph. Without it, the word becomes vayikar, meaning to come upon, such as an encounter that happens by chance or perhaps a conclusion that a person might reach on her own. To come upon, rather than being specifically directed to. Vayikar vs. vayikra.

Well, as you can imagine, rabbis and scholars have had a field day with this! And of course, lucky for me, it presented the opportunity to develop a D’var from it. As I mentioned, the way it is written in chumashim, with the aleph, translates to, “And G-d called.” So why, then, is the aleph written in the smaller size?

As prominently as Moses is mentioned in the Torah, he doesn’t often seem to draw conclusions and give instructions based on what he decided by himself. Relatively little seems to be left to his judgement. We seldom if ever read about Moses thinking to himself, “on one hand . . . on the other hand.” That would have been more in keeping with “vayikar” – without the aleph – “he came upon” or perhaps, “he concluded.”

Instead, he is often called directly by Gd, and is given very explicit instructions. This is more in keeping with “Vayikra” – with the aleph – the one that means he was called – summoned – and told, “This is how you’re going to do it.” In fact, each time Gd communicates with Moses, Gd calls him by name. The instructions are personal and direct. This entire parashah is in this form – Gd’s instructions to Moses.

Drawing on the teachings of Rashi and Maimonides, a bit of a consensus seems to have been reached over many years concerning this wayward aleph. If we regard our life’s events and activities as occurring mostly by chance, decided by circumstance, or decided in an ad hoc fashion, the implications will be fundamentally different than if we look upon ourselves as being called specifically by Gd, as though Gd is directing the events.

In the first instance, the implication may be that our individual and our collective fate is left to mere chance, circumstances, or certainly to others. As a small people, inconsequential in numbers, we would have had a very inconsequential history. And as we know, Jews have been anything but inconsequential throughout their history.

If, however, the people of Israel believe in Divine messages and Divine intervention, as though we have been specifically called by Gd, the implications are far different. It will not surprise you that theologically, I am not necessarily in this particular camp. But still, for me – one who doesn’t necessarily believe in Divine messages or Divine intervention the point of Jewish peoplehood is still the pursuit of a life of relevance and meaning, and is all about the search for something larger than the self. For many, this search is a calling. And for me, the nature of that calling is largely determined by the lessons and values our people have lived by for centuries.

So now, let’s circle back to the beginning of the parashah. The difference in Hebrew between heeding Gd’s call on one hand – vayikra – and acting without purpose or conviction – vayikar – is almost imperceptible. The words sound almost the same, with only the aleph making the difference.

The aleph’s presence in the title of the parashah is almost invisible. In a similar vein, as we’re well past the audio and visual pyrotechnics of the Exodus, Mt. Sinai and the thundering mountain, Gd’s call to us is inaudible and invisible unless we look and unless we listen. We as Jews hear that calling as a still, small voice.

We do not have to view ourselves as special because Gd sees us as being special and communicates directly with us. That’s not where I am theologically. Instead, we can become special by how we choose to interpret our Jewish teachings. When we see a wrong to be righted, a need to be met, we come as close as we can to hearing – vayikra – Gd’s call to us.

As committed Jews, we believe that what we do every minute of the day, and what we become is because we have heard a call. In his book, “To Heal a Fractured World,” Rabbi Jonathan Sacks gives us a guide for finding our calling – our summons. He said, “Where what we want to do meets with what needs to be done, that is where Gd wants us to be.” “Where what we want to do meets with what needs to be done, that is where Gd wants us to be.”


Shabbat Shalom