The Humility in Vayikra


We begin the third book of the Torah, the book known as Torat Kohanim, the book of the priest-ministers of the Divine Sanctuary, guardians of the rituals connecting Israel to God. Known in English as Leviticus, it is known in Hebrew by its opening word, “Vayikra.”

And herein lies a problem. Each of the other four books is called by its opening words, but in those instances the opening words have significance. Bereishit (literally “In the Beginning”) tells of the world’s beginning. Shemot (literally “Names”), marks the names of Jacob’s sons who went down to Egypt. Bamidbar (literally “In the Desert”) tells of the Israelites in the wilderness. Devarim (literally “Words”) recounts the farewell words and legacy of Moses. But what is the significance of Vayikra (literally “Calling Out”)?

Did not God call out to Moses as far back as the Burning Bush in the previous book? And why is it specifically now that Moses chooses to express his modesty? In the first verse, Vayikra is spelled with a small alef, as if God merely “chanced upon him” — Vayiker — but had not specifically called out to him?

I believe that the answer lies in the very strange concluding words of the Book of Exodus, towards the end of Pekudei: “Moses could not enter the Tent of Meeting, for the cloud rested upon it, and the glory of the Lord filled the Tabernacle…” [Ex. 40:34-35].

Was Moses not the supreme individual in human history who came closer to God than anyone else, who “spoke to God face to face”? Then why is Moses forbidden from entering the Tent of Meeting? Moses should have entered straightaway, precisely because the glory of God filled the Tabernacle.

Apparently, the Bible is teaching a crucial lesson about Divine service: God wants human beings to strive to come close to God, but not too close. God demands even from Moses a measured distance between God and humans. We must serve Him, but not beyond that which He commands us to do. In Divine service, we dare not go beyond His laws. There is no “beyond the requirements of the law” in the realm of laws between God and humans.

God understands the thin line between Divine service and diabolical suicide bombers; fealty to the King of all kings and fanatic sacrifice to Moloch. Hence not only does our Bible record the commands God gave to Moses regarding the construction of every aspect of the Divine Sanctuary (Truma and Tetzaveh) but painstakingly informs us again and again in Vayakhel and Pekudei that those orders were carried out exactly as they had been commanded, no less and no more [Ex. 40:16].

This is why, further on in Leviticus, God metes out a stringent death penalty upon Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, when they bring before the Lord a “strange fire which they had not been commanded to bring” [Lev. 10:1]. Too close to God can be more dangerous than too distant from Him, if over-zealous fanaticism is what Divine service turns into!

This is why both Rambam and Ramban interpret the commandment par excellence in interpersonal human relationships, “You shall do what is right and good” [Deuteronomy 6:18], to necessitate going beyond the legal requirements, whereas in the area of God-human relationships, we dare not go beyond the law, nor may we “take the law into our own hands.” Our legal authorities are concerned lest our motivation be yuhara, excessive pride before God, religious “one-upmanship, which may overtake the requisite humility.

Thus Vayikra, the book which spotlights our religious devotion to God, opens with Moses’s not entering God’s Tabernacle unless and until he is actually summoned to do so by God.

Moses’ humility is even more in evidence when he records Vayikra’s “alef” in miniature, as if to say that perhaps the call he received from God was more by accident than by design.

Indeed, the Midrash [Tanhuma 37] teaches that the small amount of unused ink, which would have been utilized on the regular-sized alef (as it were), was placed by God on Moses’ forehead; that ink of humility is what provided Moses’ face with the translucent glow with which he descended from Mount Sinai [Ex. 34:33-35].

Fanatics are completely devoid of humility; they operate with the fire rather than with the radiant light from within, the light of glory which suffused Moses’ entire being, the truest rays of splendor expressing the sanctity beyond deeds, beyond words.

Candlelighting, Readings:

Shabbat Candles: 6:57 p.m.

Torah: Lev. 1:1- 5:26

Haftarah: Isaiah 43:21-44:23

Havdalah: 7:59 p.m.