Parashat Vayikra and Shabbat HaChodesh

This Shabbat has a special name. It is called Shabbat Ha-Chodesh, the Sabbath of The Month, the month being Nissan when we will celebrate the beginning of Jewish history, as we participate in the celebration of Passover, two weeks from now.  According to Tractate Rosh Hashanah of the Mishna Rosh Chodesh Nisan is one of four New Year’s days on the Jewish calendar. In acknowledgment of the special nature of this Sabbath we will not only begin reading a new book of Torah, called Vayikra, but we also read Exodus, chapter 12:1-20, where we find the dramatic tale of the first Passover and the Israelites Exodus from Egypt.

The two Torah readings could not be more different. Vayikra, Leviticus, Chapters 1-5, deal with ritual laws concerning Jewish worship practices during Biblical times, which have not been observed for the last 1950 years. Exodus 12, on the hand, is the textual basis upon which our celebration of Passover is based.

Rabbi Mark Washovsky in his Jewish Living: Guide to Contemporary Reform Practice, explains that the additional Torah reading for Shabbat ha-Chodesh is meant to help us focus our attention upon the theme of Liberation. The text of Exodus 20 clearly teaches us that our liberation is a gift from God. Complimentary to this message, Vayikra directs us to our responsibility to demonstrate our gratitude to God. Rabbi Bernard Bamberger, the editor of the Leviticus section of our URJ, The Torah: A Modern Commentary, focuses our attention upon the fact that the first sacrifice described in this Parsha is an Olah, an offering that will be totally burnt; a true sacrifice from which no human will gain benefit. It is an offering donated by an individual and is offered up on the Alter by the priest on the donor’s behalf.  Conversely, the offering of the Passover sacrifice, described in Exodus 12, is to be totally consumed by the family or community offering the sacrifice.  Jewish worship is an obligation and a right of both the individual and the community. As Jews we believe that the covenant that binds each of us to God was given to us communally at Sinai, because we were willing to place our faith in a God who brought us out of Mitzrayim, the Biblical name for Egypt whose etymology is “narrow place”.

The opening phrase of Leviticus,” Vayikra el Moshe”, which literally means “he called to Moses” and is followed by the phrase “and Adonai spoke to him from the tent of meeting saying: “is unusual in both its syntax and in the very way the letters are written. This of course has given rise to millennium of commentary. Rabbi Bamberger (page760) includes the Agada that claims that every time God speaks to Moses in the Bible Vayikra, He calls out to Moses as He did at the Burning Bush; “ Moshe Moshe!!” and Moses in turn always answers Hineni, I’m here !

Another unusual feature of the opening word of the book of Leviticus, Vayikra, is that the last letter of the word Vayikra, an aleph, is squeezed into the space between the rest of the word and the first letter of the next word, El, which is also an aleph. This scribal peculiarity is found in every Torah scroll and in every manuscript of the Bible known to exist.  Does this scribal peculiarity mean that this aleph was a late addition to the Torah text, or was it at some early time left out by a one scribe and reinserted by another?  Either way I want to suggest on this Shabbat Ha-Chodesh that the possibility exists that the original phrase was not “Vayikra el Moshe”. “And God called out to Moses and God spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting,” but rather, “VaYikar el Moshe” and God was dear to Moses, and therefore God spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting.

This second translation, which is my own, is meant to convey the idea that the pre-requisite for we human beings to hear God is for us to affirm that God is dear to us. While the Book of Leviticus contains so many seemingly irrelevant rules, about rituals we no longer observe, the underlying message of the book is its call to us to pledge our love and loyalty to God and to become God’s voice and hands in the world.

In our high tech age of computer word processing, the human touch that leaves us questioning whether we are dealing with a missing or an added letter is replaced by the homogenized perfection of every word, and at times, every person appearing the same. In our divisive political climate both here in America and in Israel and within the American Jewish community as well, too many people are so certain that they have the right understanding of God’s Will and that their opponents have nothing but evil intent when they dare to disagree.

I suggest to you on this Shabbat Vayikra that the text of the Torah is calling out to all of us to recognize the uniqueness in each of us; to hear the text as a reminder that when we hold God dear, as did Moses, God will call out to us and speak to us by transforming our dwelling places and our communal gathering points into true Tents of meeting where we meet together with each other and with God and where we can dare to disagree with each other and still agree to respect our differences.

If we each listen for this call this week perhaps we will be better prepared to welcome Elijah at our Passover Seders and recognize that the Messianic Age is achievable, if only, we are willing to hear the call of the psalmist, Hine Ma Tovu Manayim Shevet Achim Gam Yachad Behold how good and beautiful it will be when we sit together in peace.”, not only at our family Sedarim, but every day with all of our fellow children of God.

Rabbi Neal I Borovitz is the Rabbi Emeritus at Temple Avodat Shalom in River Edge, NJ, USA.