There are only four times in the Bible when Gods “calls” to Moses before speaking to him, and all four happen at Mount Sinai. God calls from the burning bush1 for their first introduction; from the top of Mount Sinai when the ex-slaves from Egypt first arrive2; and from the top of the mountain again (when it is smoking and thundering) to give Moses more instructions before the revelation known as the “Ten Commandments”3.
The fourth time, God calls to Moses from within the Tent of Meeting that the Israelites have constructed at the foot of Mount Sinai.
Vayikra to Moses, and God spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting, saying: Speak to the children of Israel and say to them… (Leviticus/Vayikra 1:1-2)
vayikra (וַיִּקְרָא) = and he/It called (by name).
This divine call opens the book of Leviticus/Vayikra and this week’s Torah portion, which is also named Vayikra. Why does God call to Moses before giving him a new set of instructions?
One answer is that God always called Moses before speaking to him, as an expression of affection or courtesy, but the Torah does not always mention it.4
Another explanation points out that at the end of the book of Exodus/Shemot, Moses assembles the new Tent of Meeting for the first time, and the presence of God moves from the top of Mount Sinai into the tent.
Then Moses was not able to enter the Tent of Meeting because the cloud dwelled in it, and the magnificence of God filled the Dwelling-Place. (Exodus 40:35)
Moses is not willing to try entering again until God calls to him from inside the tent. When he hears this call, he realizes that his job is not finished; he must continue to serve as an intermediary between God and the Israelites.5 The only difference is that now he will hear God’s voice from the empty space above the ark in the back chamber of the tent, the Holy of Holies.6 To facilitate this, the cloud moves and hovers above the tent.
A unique feature of the word vayikra at the beginning of Leviticus is that in every Torah scroll, the letter aleph (א) at the end of the word is written smaller than the other letters.
Six words in the first five books of the Bible (Genesis through Deuteronomy, the contents of a Torah scroll) have been written with one letter smaller than the others ever since the 7th century C.E.7 No one knows the historic reason for these miniature letters, but symbolic interpretations have been proposed for each one.
The Zohar explains the small א in vayikra as indicating a restriction in God’s summons. Earlier in the Torah, God calls to Moses in full majesty from out of fire: first from the burning bush, then from the fire at the top of Mount Sinai. Now God calls from the Tent of Meeting, from inside the Holy of Holies.8
The idea of restriction is reinforced by the fact that in the first sentence of Leviticus, the Torah says He/It called to Moses, instead of God called to Moses; the name of God is only used in the second clause, when God speaks to Moses and gives him instructions. Moses hears the initial call when he is standing outside the Tent of Meeting. Then he goes inside to receive God’s new instructions.
From that point on, although Moses occasionally prostrates himself on the ground to get a quick word of divine advice, God usually speaks to him from the empty space above the ark in the Holy of Holies.
What does it mean that God now speaks with an indoor voice instead of an outdoor voice? I think this change is related to a change in the Israelites’ relationship with God. In the book of Exodus, God only speaks to the people once, on the day of revelation, and the people at the foot of Mount Sinai experience thunder, lightning, heavy cloud, the blare of a horn, smoke and fire, and earthquake.9
The experience is too devastating for the people, and they beg Moses to be a go-between for them.10 Moses does so, trotting up and down Mount Sinai, speaking with God at the top and the people at the bottom. The ex-slaves from Egypt remain passive. Even when they are afraid Moses has died, and they want an idol to replace him as their leader, they ask Moses’ brother Aaron to make it; they wouldn’t dare make a golden calf by themselves.
But when Moses passes on God’s instructions for making a dwelling-place for God, everyone with a willing heart donates materials, and everyone with a wise heart helps with the craftsmanship. (See my post Vayakheil: Will My Cup Run Over?) In the book of Leviticus, Moses passes on God’s instructions for when and how the people should serve God by bringing their offerings, both animal and vegetable, to the altar. Aaron and his four sons get new jobs as priests conducting sacred rituals, and at every stop on the journey through the wilderness, each tribe has a designated camping spot in relation to the Tent of Meeting.
Everyone is involved in serving God. But only Moses and Aaron (the high priest) hear God’s voice; only they are permitted to enter the Holy of Holies.
Today we still see a difference between the organized religion of a congregation, and a lone person hearing God’s voice on a mountain-top. People still have individual mystical experiences, usually when they are alone and confronted with a sight or sound that inspires awe. Those experiences are precious. But they are not sufficient for leading a good or holy life. After all, does anyone today get explicit instructions from God whenever he or she needs them? Is anyone today like Moses?
When we yearn for a moral compass or a way to walk with (or at least toward) God, we need help from other people. We need a community of fellow-seekers, wise teachers to advise us, books to study, prayers to chant, rituals to perform. We need our own equivalent of the Tent of Meeting.
If we do build a dwelling-place for God, in the right way for our own community in our own time, then we, too, can draw closer to God. We may not hear God’s voice, but we can all feel that God is calling, and God’s presence rests in our midst.
(An earlier version of this essay was posted on March 6, 2010.)
1 And God saw that he had turned aside to look, vayikra to him, God, from the middle of the bush, and said: Moses! Moses! (Exodus 3:4).
2 And they journeyed on from Refidim, and they entered the wilderness of Sinai, and they camped in the wilderness; and Israel camped there in front of the mountain. And Moses went up to God. Vayikra to him, God, from the mountain, saying: Thus you shall say to the House of Jacob… (Exodus 19:2-3)
3 And God came down onto Mount Sinai, vayikra Moses, God did, to the top of the mountain. And Moses went up. (Exodus 19:20)
4 Rashi (12th-century rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki) on Torat Kohanim (Leviticus), after Sifra, ed. by Rav Chiyya of the Babylonian Talmud. Also see Midrash Rabbah, Bamidbar, 14:21.
5 “Moses needed constant goading because he was a humble person who instinctively withdrew from the attention and the honors that go with leadership.” (Rabbi Elie Munk, The Call of the Torah: Vayikra, trans. by E.S. Mazer, Mesorah Publications, 1992, p. 2)
6 And when Moses went into the Tent of Meeting to speak with [God], then he would hear the voice speaking to him from above the lid that was on the Ark of the Testimony, from between the two keruvim; and [God] spoke to him. (Numbers 7:89)
7 During the 7th to 10th centuries C.E., rabbis arrived at a single, authoritative Biblical text derived from various copies written in consonants only. The Masoretes added diacritical marks to the text to indicate vowels, cantillation, and grammar. They also added marginal notes, and made some letters abnormal in size or position. The small letters (zeira) were among the earliest changes by the Masoretes. These six miniscule letters appear in Genesis 2:4 (ה in behibaram = when being created), Genesis 23:2 (כּ in velivkotah = and to wail for her), Genesis 27:46 (ק in katzeti = I am disgusted), Leviticus 1:1 (א in vayikra), Leviticus 6:2 (מ in mokdah = fire-place), and Numbers 25:11 (י in the name Pinchas).
8 Munk, The Call of the Torah: Vayikra, p. 3, paraphrasing the Zohar, a multi-volume kabbalistic commentary by Moshe deLeon, 13th century.
9 Exodus 19:16-19.
10 Exodus 20:15-18.