One of the best known ideas in the Torah arises from the first word of this portion.
God calls to Moses – “Vayikra el Moshe” – and the final letter of the Hebrew word is written small. Moses was too modest to think that God had specially chosen to address him. His own preference was to leave out the alef altogether, making the word “vayikar” (“God met him”) instead of “Vayikra” (“God called him”).
Why then does the Torah use “Vayikar” in relation to the heathen prophet Bilam (Num. 23:4 and 16), implying that Bilam as well as Moses was a modest man?
Rashi says that in Bilam’s case it certainly was true that there was no Divine outreach but only a casual encounter. Bilam didn’t deserve anything more than “Vayikar”, and God really held him in contempt.
Possibly Moses was aware of this and while he himself was a modest man and did not want to claim that God chose him and favoured him, he put in the missing alef of “Vayikra”, though he wrote it small, in order to at God’s command in order not to belittle himself.
ENGAGING YOUR BEING.
The Torah reading this Shabbat is full of sacrifices.
The command commences, “If any of you brings a sacrifice”. The Hebrew verse can be understood as saying, “If anyone brings a sacrifice of *you*”. There are many sacrifices of animals (“You shall bring your offering from the cattle, the herds and the flock”), but the first and most important offering comes “of you”.
The word for “sacrifice” is “korban”, from the root “k-r-v” which means “to draw near”.
The Zohar points out that there are special categories – Kohanim and Levi’im – who have obligations to draw near to the Almighty in the sanctuary, but in addition the masses of the population have to involve themselves in the communal offering. Not merely in the Tabernacle or Temple, but everywhere and at all times.
Anyone who believes in God cannot and must not leave the relationship on an intellectual or theoretical level. They must engage their whole being in the service of the Creator. When people see a believer, they should be able to say,
“When I look at what that person does, I know from their deeds that they are filled with the thought of God and the yearning to be in His Presence.”
Not only this, but when the believer seeks God, one of the best ways is to remember to sacrifice the animal spirit within them, i.e. the urge to catch other people and do them harm.
AGENDA FOR EDUCATION
In Talmudic times, Jewish children began their Hebrew education with Vayikra, the third book of the Torah. Its subject-matter was meal, animal and bird sacrifices. What a choice of text-book for young children! But the sages said:
“Small children are pure. The sacrifices are pure. Let those who are pure come and occupy themselves with things that are pure!” (Lev. R. 7).
Yet Nathan Morris, in his history of Jewish education (The Jewish School, 1937, ch. 9), remarks,
“With a little ingenuity, of which the rabbis had no lack, no less cogent ‘reasons’ could be discovered why children should begin with almost any other part of the Bible”.
He quotes Wilhelm Bacher, who thought the custom arose in Jerusalem in the schools set up for the children of the kohanim, but says that even if such schools existed, how could the custom be relevant in post-Temple times to non-kohanic families?
When the custom was first recorded, in the 2nd century CE, there was no uniform practice, and various schools began with different Biblical books. Morris’ own view is that after the destruction of the Temple there was a fear that people might get used to the absence of the Temple, priesthood and sacrifices, and the hope of restoring Jewish independence and rebuilding the Temple had to be emphasised. This justified teaching Vayikra, reinforced by the reference to acquainting pure children with pure thoughts.
“We may well judge this Book by its influence in the education of Israel. As a result of its stern legislation, Israel’s sons and daughters were freed from the ignoble and the vile – from all brutality and bestiality.”
Modern curriculum ideas might question Vayikra as a text-book, but the fact is that the one subject which is too difficult for today’s parents, teachers and society is morality. Because education is said to be about choice, pupils are taught to be open-minded. With what result? It has been said that “some people are so open-minded that their brains fall out”.
Of course we must be tolerant of other people and respect them despite the choices they make. But the rabbis’ choice of Vayikra tells us to stand up for what we believe in – truth, justice, peace, goodness, decency, modesty – and give unambiguous guidance.