Vayikra: Getting our Attention

Copyright 2013 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Vayikra

“The Holy One called to Moses and spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting . . . “ (Vayikra/ Leviticus 1:1)

Good morning!

The very first words of the book of Vayikra (and the first Torah portion of the same name) are unusual: God usually “speaks” to Moshe (vayidaber) but here God first “calls” to him, and then speaks to him. (Another unusual feature of the first verse is the small aleph at the end of the first word- see here for more on both themes.)

Now, it’s not the first time that God “calls” to Moshe; commentators note that the same word appears in connection with the burning bush (Ex. 3:4) and when Moshe goes back up Mt. Sinai after initial revelation (Ex. 24:16). You can find other interesting comparisons of who gets “called” (and why) here, but for today let’s note that both verbs- calling and speaking- connote communication, so perhaps the first is a matter of getting Moshe’s attention and the second is relaying specific content.

This is, of course, very common: we often call out to friends or family or complete strangers, to let them know we want their attention, and then begin to tell them something in its particulars: “hey you! move your car!” or even what I like to call the “Jewish intercom” of shouting across the halls to somebody in another office. Yet Moshe wasn’t navigating the streets or working in an office; he was already near the Tent of Meeting, which was filled with the Divine Presence. (See the end of the book of Exodus.)

In other words, humans are so distractible that even the greatest prophet, standing near the place where the Divine Presence was experienced by the camp of Israel, needed to be brought to attention before he could attune to the sacred (to paraphrase Michael Fishbane.) So if even Moshe- who knew the Holy One face to face (as it were)- had to be called, or perhaps focused, before he could hear or discern the voice from the Tent of Meeting, it reminds me how much more I have to focus myself before Torah study, prayer, mitzvot, acts of lovingkindness and the myriad other ways we experience that Presence in our day. To wit: while writing the two paragraphs above, I answered several other emails and instant messages which came in and then I came back to the task of writing a Torah commentary on the need to have more awareness of the sacred!

Moshe is us: we are all called to pay attention to the spiritual experience we might have in the very next moment. For us, there is no one Tent of Meeting at the center of the camp, so it’s up to each of us to find those places, people, moments, practices and texts which grab our attention, turn us away from the trivial and towards the things which most deeply ground us in a life that matters. As earthly beings, we will always feel pulled towards the next distraction (and there are millions more than in Moshe’s time) but as spiritual seekers we also have the possibility of hearing a quiet call, asking us to experience the Sacred and act accordingly.

Shabbat Shalom,


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