The People of the Book must heed its calling

We Jews call ourselves the People of the Book. It’s not unusual to see Jewish art depicting us with our faces transfixed by the words on the page of a Chumash or Talmud. But the Torah doesn’t imagine us that way. Instead, it teaches us that we are not readers, but callers.
By the time God calls to Moshe in this week’s parasha (Vayikra —“God called out”) listing the rules for sacrifice, we should be very familiar with this important biblical verb. The book of Genesis uses the verb kuf-reish-alef for two very important purposes. The first is naming: God “calls” light and darkness, heaven and earth, land and sea into existence. The second is to indicate a connection being forged over some distance, either geographic or spiritual. God “calls” out to Adam after he hides himself after eating from the Tree of Knowledge.
These actions — naming and connecting — are linked. When we name someone, we don’t just say their name, we announce it.
We let others know that this name is who this new human being is. That’s why so many of the names in the Torah are descriptive. Sarah calls her son Yitzchak because she fears that others will laugh (tzchok) at her for conceiving a child at such an advanced age. Ya’akov is so named because he holds on to the ankle of his brother’s heel (akev) as he emerges from the womb. When we call someone by their name, the Torah teaches us, we should be reaching out for that person’s essence, for their true character.
In the first part of the book of Exodus, surprisingly, it is Pharaoh who does most of the calling. Five times, Pharaoh calls out to Moshe and Aharon to plead on his behalf to God and convince Him to cease the plagues He is raining down upon the Egyptians. But the most significant shift that occurs with regard to the word Vayikra begins with the first conversation between God and Moshe, when calling becomes the “default” way of creating a connection with God. Sure, God has to “call” out to Moshe to get his attention at the burning bush. But the frequency with which the word is used post-Exodus, when Moshe and God are in such regular contact, indicates a change in the word’s meaning.
Where Vayikra once indicated some sort of gap that needed to be bridged, it now reflects the constant back and forth between human and divine voices. It is no longer distance that the verb Vayikra is suggesting, but its opposite — closeness. God calls out to us to sanctify our lives with the commandments, and we call out to God to hear and answer our prayers. Most significantly, we call out to God by name in order to evoke his compassion. After the sin of the golden calf, a moment fraught with danger for the Israelites, Moshe calls out in the name of God: “The Lord, The Lord, merciful and gracious, long suffering, and abundant in goodness in truth.”
In Sefer Vayikra (Leviticus), God calls out to teach us how to offer a sacrifice, a korban, literally an object of closeness. God encourages us to draw close to express our gratitude, to ask for forgiveness and to celebrate our well-being. Sacrifice opens the door to a regular practice of calling out to God, a practice our Sages reconstituted as daily prayer.
Too often, I fear, our spiritual spaces are spaces of distance, of discomforting silence and of restrained emotion. And though we find great meaning and insight in reading and in thinking, when we don’t encourage each other to find ways to give our words a full-throated voice, we risk distancing ourselves not only from our sacred tradition, but also from our God. Though we are, indeed, the People of the Book, we must never forget that our Book is also a book of calling — Sefer Vayikra.
Rabbi Adam Roffman has served at Congregation Shearith Israel since 2013.

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