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Chancellor's Parashah Commentary

Parashat Va-yikra 5763
Leviticus 1:1 -5:26
March 15, 2003    11 Adar II 5763

Ismar Schorsch is the chancellor of The Jewish Theological Seminary

I never heard my parents address each other by their first names. They showed their mutual affection, which remained palpable till late in their lives, by using pet names. My father called my mother "Mutti" (from the German word for mother - Mutter) and my mother always called him "Schatzi" (from the German word for treasure - Schatz). As my father aged, he developed the habit of saying "Mutti" to himself audibly and often, without ever intending to attract her attention. Alone in his study, he would emit the sound of her name when he rose from his desk to get another book or just reclined to rest for a moment. She was clearly the anchor of his life.

It was only when I came to the Seminary as a student in 1957 that I realized that "Schatzi" was a common name of endearment among Jews from Germany. Adele Ginzberg (affectionately known to students as Mamma Ginzberg) had never called her late renowned husband, Professor Louis Ginzberg, anything but "Schatzi". Seminary lore recounted that whenever she attended his class in Talmud and interrupted with a comment, as was her wont, she would address him unselfconsciously as "Schatzi" much to the students' delight.

This is the manner in which the rabbis handle an evident redundancy in the first verse of our parasha. The book of Leviticus opens with God instructing Moses on the nature of the sacrificial system to be used in the just finished tabernacle: "The Lord called to Moses and spoke to him from the tent of Meeting, saying...(1:1)."

Our rabbinic ancestors, unlike impatient modern readers, tarry on the "inelegance" of two verbs - "called" and "spoke," where one would have sufficed. Two separate acts are involved, they insist. First, God addresses Moses by name, intimately and affectionately, and only then does the conversation ensue. The force of the verb "va-yikra - and the Lord called" conveys a longstanding relationship. The call is an invitation to resume contact, to begin the dialogue afresh. Moses has done his task exceedingly well. The way God pronounces his name intimates divine satisfaction. We can usually tell what is coming by how someone initially pronounces our name. The prepositional phrase "to him" suggests that God turns to Moses alone. No one else is privy to what will be said.

One graphic midrash envisions God as taking up residence in the Tabernacle and finding everything executed exactly as prescribed. The final two chapters of the book of Exodus had stressed after the completion and installation of each artifact that it was done "as the Lord had commanded Moses," as if each object were stamped with God's endorsement. God's reaction resembled that of a king who had instructed his architect to build him a new palace. When finished, the king toured the edifice and discovered that every section bore an inscription with his name. Like that satisfied sovereign, God summoned Moses, who had been waiting respectfully outside, to enter the Tabernacle. God could not have been more pleased.

Indeed, this midrash goes on to assert that the phrase "as the Lord had commanded Moses" appears precisely eighteen times (39: 1, 5, 7, 21, 26, 29, 31, 32, 42, 43; 40: 16, 19, 21, 23, 25, 27, 29, 32), corresponding to the eighteen vertebrae of the spinal cord (by the Rabbis' count), the eighteen blessings of the silent devotion (there are today actually nineteen) and the eighteen appearances of God's name (the Tetragrammaton) in both the three paragraphs of the Shema and Psalm 29. The equivalences establish a link between Tabernacle and synagogue, the sacrificial cult and verbal prayer (during which one often genuflects, hence the vertebrae), as if the original revelation anticipated later developments.

But I cite this midrash not to talk about numerology or mysticism, but about the pagination of a Sefer Torah scroll. A simple aliyah to the Torah will remind you that its columns of unvocalized and unpunctuated Hebrew text are not divided into chapters or verses but into units of varying lengths broken up by an enclosed empty space in the middle of a line or an open space at the end of a line. In our printed Humashim, which are arranged by chapter and verse (a pattern introduced by the Church), those ancient spaces are marked by either the Hebrew letter peih (parasha petuha signifying an open unit) or samekh (parasha segura signifying a closed unit). The accompanying English translation is ordered according to these units as well as by chapters and verses. Thus, for example, the book of Exodus, which we finished last Shabbat, contains 164 such units.

The reason the Rabbis noticed the number of times the phrase "as the Lord had commanded Moses" appears is because all of the units in chapters 39 and 40 of Exodus, except the last two, end with that refrain. In other words, the units were demarcated by the phrase to underscore that the construction of the Tabernacle and all its appurtenances complied fully with God's word.

Nor is this the only instance where God calls Moses by name before instructing him. The midrash states that in fact each time God addresses Moses, be it to teach, converse or command, God first lovingly calls him by name.

Could it be, the midrash finally speculates, that God might also precede the cessation of communication, the void between the visitations with a fond mention of Moses's name? And if that is unimaginable, then what is the purpose of the interruptions in revelation or the empty spaces in our text? To which the midrash responds with psychological insight: to absorb and internalize what has just been transmitted. Without the benefit of frequent stretches of silence, the Torah turns into a mere torrent of discordant voices. In truth, were our lives punctuated with periods of silence, we would hear God calling us by name more often.

Shabbat shalom and a happy Purim,

Ismar Schorsch

The publication and distribution of Dr. Schorsch's commentary on Parashat Va-yikra are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z"l) Hassenfeld. This commentary was originally composed in 1997.