Writings / "VAYIKRa" - Making Space for Holiness


Vayikra is a new book, ostensibly marking a clear new beginning. A glance at Vayikra reveals a book quite different from the other books of the Torah. Most notable is the dearth of narrative: This book is far more technically minded than it is interested in telling stories. Furthermore, the chronological thread, which had been a constant since Bereishit, seems lost. In a sense, had the Book of Bamidbar preceded Vayikra, we may not have noticed that anything was awry:(1) Sh'mot was occupied with the Exodus, and the march toward the Land of Israel is taken up in the following books, Bamidbar and D'varim. In Vayikra the Jews are clearly out of Egypt, yet time seems to stand still.

On the other hand, none of the books of the Torah exist in a vacuum. While Bamidbar is the chronological continuation of Shmot, Vayikra should be seen as the thematic continuation. An analysis of the very beginning of Vayikra will elucidate this connection.

The book begins with a difficult verse:

And [He] called to Moshe, and God spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting, saying... (Vayikra 1:1)

The verse seems uneven, out of balance: Moshe is called, though we are not told by whom. Of course, we believe that the caller is the same one who then speaks to him: God. The second half of the verse clearly states that God spoke to Moshe from the Tent, but what does the first half of the verse tell us? Though contextually clear, linguistically the text is obscure. The reader would surely be less challenged by more straightforward wording: "God spoke to Moshe in the Tent of Meeting". Yet this is not what the text says. Additionally, the text has another oddity: The first word of the verse is written with a letter of abnormal size: the aleph in Vayikra is written in tiny script: VAYIKRa

These idiosyncrasies combine to make a difficult verse, and therefore a difficult introduction to the book.


Rashi addresses the first question, yet seems to exacerbate the second, explaining that the "calling" is a sign of love and endearment:

"And [He] called to Moshe" - [before] all the utterances, all the sayings, all the commandments a calling preceded, a term of endearment, a language that the angels on high utilize, as it says "one called to the other." However, in revealing [Himself] to the prophets of the nations, He revealed Himself in a fleeting, impure fashion, as it says "The Almighty happened upon Bil'am." (Rashi, Vayikra 1:1)

Rashi refers to a verse that describes a similar type of calling out: In the Vision of Yishayahu, the angels, who do not suffer from the human frailties of temperament and jealousy, call to one another with love, inviting one another to join in a great song of praise to God.

...I saw also God sitting upon a throne, high and exalted, and His train filled the Sanctuary. Above it stood seraphim; each one had six wings; with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he did fly. And one called to another, and said, 'Holy, holy, holy, is the God of Hosts; the whole earth is full of His Glory.' (Yishayahu 6:1-3)

Rashi establishes this unusual introduction to the Book of Vayikra as an archetype for all Divine communication with Moshe. Additionally, Rashi contrasts this type of communication with another instance: the language used to describe God's method of addressing the evil Bil'am is vayikar, a term of enmity which implies terseness of speech and, therefore, disdain.(2) Thus, Rashi explains, the Torah describes how God calls out to Moshe with love, in contradistinction to God's communication with Bil'am.

While this explains the unusual syntax of the verse, our second question is exacerbated by Rashi's comments: If the entire purpose of this phrase was to illustrate God's love for Moshe and the extraordinary distinction between this communication and the communication with Bil'am, why is the aleph written small, in effect causing that word to read "vayikar", just as in the case of Bil'am?


The Ba'al haTurim, for one, is of the opinion that the small aleph was Moshe's choice. This is one of many instances in which Moshe's modesty shines through the words of the Torah: Moshe thought that his 'introduction' should be no different from God's speech to Bil'am. He would have had the verse readvayikar, just as in the case of Bil'am, even though God said "Vayikra." Therefore, in a compromise position, God had Moshe write the aleph small.(3)

And yet, the Ba'al HaTurim's answer raises inevitable questions: Why here? Why now? What was it at this particular moment that caused Moshe to be suddenly overwhelmed by this sense of humility? We know that Moshe was the most modest of men, yet this does not explain Moshe's insistence that the text reflect his modest stature at this particular juncture. A teaching of the Ariz"al may bring together the various opinions regarding this very difficult verse: we may say that the small aleph reflects the atmosphere at the moment this scene unfolds. The Ariz"al points out that God calls out to Moshe in the aftermath of the sin of the Golden Calf. Therefore, the "calling" itself was somewhat defective. God called Moshe from a perspective of limitation, after man had lost some of his stature.(4) This idea is based on a teaching in the Zohar,(5) which notes that while Vayikra begins with an abnormally small aleph, Divrei HaYamim, which chronicles man from the first day of history, begins with a larger-than-normal aleph:

Adam, Seth, Enosh. (Divrei Haymim I, 1:1)

At the dawn of creation, man enjoyed an unparalleled stature. The world was brand new, and man was created in the image of God. When Adam and Eve ate from the forbidden tree, man's stature was diminished, the luster with which they had been endowed was lost. Generations later, a window of opportunity was opened: When the Children of Israel stood at the foot of Mount Sinai, they regained some of what had been lost in Eden. The shining crowns described in the midrash are representations of their regained glory. As we know, the glory was very short-lived: the crowns were forfeited, man's stature once again diminished, as a result of the sin of the Golden Calf. It is at this juncture that the narrative stands when God calls out to Moshe: the aleph is small once again, reflecting man's diminished stature.

The Sfat Emet understands this small aleph from a slightly different perspective, one closer to that of the Ba'al haTurim: God calls out to Moshe, and it is Moshe's perspective that is reflected in this verse. Moshe, who was incredibly modest, had always been ambivalent about his own leadership role. From the outset, he felt unworthy, but he became convinced that the people needed him, and for that reason alone he took up his role. Moshe saw himself as nothing more or less than an extension of his People. He saw his own greatness not as innate, but as a function of his role in representing the Children of Israel. When the people failed with the Golden Calf, Moshe saw himself as no better than Bil'am; he, too, was a prophet for idolaters. In Moshe's view, he deserved no more regard, no greater terms of affection from God, than did Bil'am. He felt he "deserved" to be addressed with the same type of speech.(6) For this reason, the aleph is diminished.

Let us return to the first textual peculiarity: The text does not indicate who calls Moshe, and the phrasing of this verse is very uneven. The Sforno finds a parallel to this verse at the end of Parshat Mishpatim: there, Moshe is called to ascend Mount Sinai in order to receive the Torah.(7) Moshe was to be on high for forty days and nights. He climbs the mountain, but waits for six days until he is called to proceed.

And Moshe went up into the Mount, and a cloud covered the Mount. And the Glory of the Lord abode upon Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it six days; and [He] called to Moshe on the seventh day from the midst of the cloud. (Shmot 24:15-16)

It seems as if Moshe was unable to penetrate the Glory of God, represented by the cloud; the holiness was too extreme. A similar description is used when the Mishkan is built:

Then a cloud covered the Tent of Meeting, and the Glory of God filled the Mishkan. And Moshe was not able to enter into the Tent of Meeting, because the cloud abode on it, and the Glory of God filled the Mishkan. And when the cloud would be lifted from upon the Mishkan, The Children of Israel would travel on all their journeys. (Shmot 40:34-36)

Moshe was unable to enter the Cloud of Glory that covered Mount Sinai until he was called; so, too, at the dedication of the Mishkan, Moshe was unable to enter until he was called. In the case of Mount Sinai, Moshe is called in the very same verse, while in the case of the Mishkan, Moshe is called in the next paragraph: The description of the cloud filling the newly-completed Mishkan is found in the last verses of the Book of Shmot, and Moshe is called to enter the Mishkan in the very next verse - the first verse of the Book of Vayikra. The first phrase in Vayikra continues, almost mid-sentence, the last verses of the Book of Shmot.

This also provides insight as to "what" or "who" called Moshe, and the nature of this calling. The verse reads:

And [He] called to Moshe, and God spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting, saying...(Vayikra 1:1)


The calling has no content, unlike the speech which immediately follows. This was the reason that Rashi declared that there most be a different reason for the use of this anomalous form- namely, God's love for Moshe. However, we must recall how Shmot ends, with the Mishkan fully constructed and the Glory of God descended, with Moshe and the People of Israel anxiously awaiting some sign that entry into the Mishkan is possible. They surely wonder if the closeness they felt at Sinai could ever be rekindled after the sin of the Golden Calf. The Zohar describes the scene as a wedding day:

"And Moshe was not able to enter into the Tent of Meeting, because the cloud abode thereon." For the reason that She (i.e, the Shechina) was then arraying herself in Her finery as a woman prepares and bedecks herself to receive her husband; and at such a moment it is unseemly for the husband to enter unto her. Thus "Moshe was not able to enter into the Tent of Meeting..." (Zohar, Shmot 235b)

As the Book of Shmot comes to a close, the Mishkan stands ready, but it is not yet the time for intimacy. As Vayikra begins, there is a reaching out, as God or the Shechina, the Glory of God, calls out lovingly to Moshe. Now Moshe may enter the Mishkan. Just as receiving the Torah required a preparation of six days before Moshe could enter, the dedication of the Mishkan required similar preparation. The primary concern of the Book of Vayikra is this newfound intimacy; the basic principle of the korban, the sacrificial offering, Vayikra's main subject, is rooted in the word karov - to come close; to be intimate. Thekorban represents the possibility for man to heal his damaged relationship with God, to come close, to rekindle what has been dimmed by sin.

True intimacy with God is difficult; after all, God is infinite, unknowable, ineffable, beyond our grasp. And yet, when the Mishkan is completed, Moshe, and through him, all of Israel, are called to rendezvous with God. This paradox lies at the core of the verses on which Rashi bases his comments on our verse:

...I saw God sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up, and His train filled the Sanctuary. Above it stood seraphim; each one had six wings; with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he did fly. And one called to another, and said, "Holy, holy, holy, is the God of Hosts; the whole earth is full of His glory." And the posts of the door moved at the voice of he who cried, and the house was filled with smoke. (Yishayahu 6:1-4)

Even the angels grapple with the paradox of God as both transcendent and omnipresent: The angels call to one another and declare that God is completely holy, completely separate, completely transcendent, yet God's Glory fills the earth. God is both completely transcendent - and quintessentially imminent. This profound paradox is the heart of the Jewish experience.(8) God is unknowable - yet available; beyond imagination - yet at my side; "high and exalted", yet "His train filled the Sanctuary." The paradox which lies at the very core of Jewish belief is the essence of the Mishkan. The result of accepting this mystery is that the "House filled with smoke": The Shechina comes down and envelops the Sanctuary.

This is the starting point of Vayikra. The Glory of God fills the Mishkan. The transcendent God brings His Glory down to earth. This Glory is so impressive that the Mishkan can not be penetrated. And then, God limits infinity one more degree and calls out to Moshe from the midst of the Mishkan. Moshe, for his part, undergoes a similar process. Rather than being carried away with his own impressive record, he feels that he is unworthy of direct contact with theShechina. Moshe had led the Jews from Egypt, Moshe climbed the Mountain and brought the Torah to earth, Moshe "wrestled" with God to save the people at the moment of their infamy. Yet Moshe feels inadequate in the face of the Glory of God. Paradoxically, this modesty is what makes Moshe a spiritual giant, and all the more capable of his role as leader and teacher.

Moshe's self-limitation mirrored God's self-limitation; the small aleph remains as a clue to both. Here, then, is a key which enables us to gain access to God: Downsize ego in order to make room for spirituality. Limit the human tendency to self-aggrandizement. When man becomes intoxicated with his own sense of importance, he begins to believe that he is a "self-made man", and begins to worship his "creator". Such a man cannot find God. Only man who is cognizant that God is both transcendent and imminent, infinite yet self-limiting, can approach the Divine. To such a man, the Infinite will call out, inviting him to intimacy.

God lovingly called to Moshe, who deserved this calling precisely because he thought he did not. Similarly, the angels, in an act that is devoid of ego and the jealousy it spawns, lovingly call out to one another, and we repeat the words of the angels on a daily basis. But we must not let this formula become rote, words absentmindedly uttered as we attend our prayers. We must listen to the call. It is an invitation to intimacy with the Divine, and, when heeded, results in the Glory of God filling the earth.



1. With the exception of the events on the "eighth day", where a time frame can be understood, and one later narrative whose time is unclear chapter 24:10-23, this book is made up entirely of laws.

2. See Rashi's comments Vayikra 1:1, and Bamidbar 23:4.

3. Baal Haturim Vayikra 1:1.

4. Sha'ar Hapsukim, Ki Tisa, and Vayikra. See Sha'arei Leshem part 2 section 8, and the sources cited there.

5. See Zohar Vayikra 53b.

6. Sfat Emet Vayikra 5660, 5661.

7. Sforno Vayikra 1:1.

8. This formulation was articulated by my teacher Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik. See Days of Deliverance: Essays on Purim and Hanukkah (Ktav: Toras HoRav Foundation, 2007) page 108f.