Between the Lines—Va-yikra

Weekly Midrash Learning with Rabbi Andy Shugerman

Leviticus Rabbah 1:7

ד״א ויקרא אל משה מה כתיב למעלה מהענין פ׳ משכן כאשר צוה ה׳ את משה משל למלך שצוה את עבדו וא״ל בנה לי פלטין על כל דבר ודבר שהיה בונה היה כותב עליו שמו של מלך והיה בונה כתלים וכותב עליהן שמו של מלך היה מעמיד עמודים וכותב עליהן שמו של מלך היה מקרה בקורות והיה כותב עליהן שמו של מלך לימים נכנס המלך לתוך פלטין על כל דבר ודבר שהיה מביט היה מוצא שמו כתוב עליו אמר כל הכבוד הזה עשה לי עבדי ואני מבפנים והוא מבחוץ קראו לו שיכנס לפני ולפנים כך בשעה שאמר לו הקב״ה למשה עשה לי משכן על כל דבר ודבר שהיה עושה היה כותב עליו כאשר צוה ה׳ את משה אמר הקב״ה כל הכבוד הזה עשה לי משה ואני מבפנים .והוא מבחוץ קראו לו שיכנס לפני ולפנים לכך נאמר ויקרא אל משה

Another interpretation of "The LORD called to Moses . . . " (Lev. 1:1). What is written prior to this? The section about [the building of] the Tabernacle, [with its repeating phrase]: "just as the LORD commanded Moses."

This may be compared to [the parable of] a king who commanded his servant, telling him, "Build me a palace." On everything he built, he wrote the name of the king: he built the walls, and wrote on them the name of the king; he built pillars, and wrote on them the name of the king; he roofed it with beams, and wrote on them the name of the king. After some time, the king entered the palace, and on everything he saw he found his name written. The king said: "All this honor has my servant shown me, and I [alone] am inside, while he is without! Call him so he may enter the innermost chamber."

So, too, when the Blessed Holy One said to Moses, "Make Me a Tabernacle," [Moses] wrote on everything he made, "just as the LORD commanded Moses." Said the Blessed Holy One: "Moses has shown Me all this honor, and I am within while he is without! Call him, that he may enter the innermost [part of the Tabernacle]." Therefore it is said, "And the LORD called to Moses [from the Tent of Meeting] . . . " (Lev. 1:1).

The rabbis who composed midrashim often assumed the roles of literary critic and of storyteller, occasionally at the same time. In the passage above, the anonymous author of this interpretation spins a tale of devotion and intimacy based on two simple insights from a close reading of this week's and last week's Torah portions. This rabbinic text also challenges us to consider how and where we find God today.

The phrase "just as the LORD commanded Moses" appears eighteen times in Exodus 39–40. That tabulation, especially with such an auspicious total figure, inspires many midrashim about the meaning of such intense repetition. Here the recurring phrase explains the setting for the opening verse of Leviticus, in which God calls to Moses "from the Tent of Meeting." The parable depicts Moses as "the servant," faithfully following the king's instructions and demonstrating this fidelity with plaque-like dedications to honor his master. The grateful king reciprocates by inviting his servant to join him in the palace's "innermost chamber."

This allegory expresses the rabbis' understanding of Moses as the paradigmatic community builder, who creates personal and public space in which to encounter God. The "palace" Moses erects is sacred because of his commitment to the One who commands us to place such space at the center of our lives and at the heart of our communities. May our Pesah cleaning rededicate us to these spiritual homes.