This week we begin a new book of the Chumash, Vayikra. The book is predominantly about the sacrificial rites of the Temple and Tabernacle so the English name seems more appropriate than the Hebrew. Leviticus indicates that the book deals with the work of the Levites (priests). How is the Hebrew name of Vayikra apt for this section?
The book begins, “He called (Vayikra) to Moshe, and G-d spoke to him from the tent of meeting, saying...”. Rashi’s opening comment on this portion is: Each time G-d spoke to Moshe, told him something, or commanded him, He first called to him. This is a word denoting love and closeness, as we find with the ministering angels, “They call one to another...” (Yishaya 6; 3). However, when G-d speaks to non-Jewish prophets He appears to them ‘incidentally’, as the Torah states, “The L-rd happened (Vayikar) upon Bilam”.
Since G-d called first to Moshe before every prophecy, why did Rashi not make this comment until now? And what difference does it make if G-d calls first before speaking to a prophet, or just appears to them? We would have expected the message of the prophecy to be important, but not necessarily whether G-d first gives the prophet a warning or not. Ohr Gedaliyahu (Vayikra) explains that when G-d called to Moshe it was as if He was saying ‘Prepare yourself to come near to Me’. This is what Rashi means by calling Vayikra a term of closeness, that it gave Moshe an opportunity to prepare himself and draw near to G-d. The Midrash (Rabba, Devarim Ki Tavo 7-9) finds a hint to this from the way G-d gave the Torah to Moshe. The verse states “G-d called to Moshe to the top of the mountain - and Moshe elevated himself” (Exodus 19; 20). In a similar vein, when a man comes up to read from the Torah, he must first be ‘called up’.
We see therefore that through calling G-d gives a person an opportunity to prepare themselves to come close to G-d. In this way the Torah that they will receive will not be merely tangential to them, but they will be able to absorb it, to make it part of themselves. This is the opposite of what happened with Bilam. G-d came to him ‘incidentally’, without calling to him first. Though Bilam received a message through prophecy, we see that this fact had no effect on Bilam’s personal conduct. He still remained greedy, cunning, and steadfast in his hatred of the Jews.
The main topic of Vayikra is sacrifices. The Hebrew word for sacrifice is Korban, which comes from the root Karov, meaning closeness. Though the whole concept of sacrifices, and the mechanism through which it works seems very strange and foreign to us now, we can accept the principle that bringing an animal to the Temple is a symbol of giving something to G-d. Particularly nowadays, that prayer has replaced sacrifices, we understand that this gives us a chance to give of ourselves to G-d, and through this draw close to Him.
We believe that G-d lacks nothing, and since He created us we would not have expected that there is anything that we could possibly give to him. However, Rabbi Dessler (Michtav Me’Eliyahu - Kuntrus HaChessed) writes that the only way to truly come to love someone is through giving to them (which is perhaps the opposite of the way we normally view things). If we were not given any opportunity to give to G-d we would also not be able to come to love Him. Therefore in His kindness He commanded us to bring certain sacrifices, and nowadays prayers in their place, to offer to Him. In this way we can elevate ourselves, and come to love G-d. With this understanding we see that the commands about the sacrifices are analogous to G-d’s calling before revealing Himself to a prophet. It gives the opportunity to turn G-d’s unilateral love into a relationship, and enables humans to attach themselves to G-d.