One of my favorite verses in Torah comes when Jacob awakens from his dream of a ladder connecting heaven and earth and declares, “God was in this place and I did not know it.” I love that moment of holy recognition, when we realize something has been before our eyes all the time without our previously noticing. It is the beginning of our becoming more awake and aware, of living a more conscious and conscientious life.
This week we start the book of Leviticus. Of all of the sections of the Torah, this can be the most difficult for contemporary Jews. While most of us find it relatively easy to relate to the stories, ethics, and teachings of the rest of the Hebrew Scriptures, the sacrifices and laws of ritual impurity that take up much of Leviticus strike our modern sensibilities as profoundly strange, alien, and archaic.
It helps, then, to remember that at the heart of all of the ancient sacrificial rites lies the book’s opening word, which comprises its Hebrew name: Vayikra—“And God called.” Ultimately, for all of its strangeness to the contemporary reader, Leviticus is all about hearing God’s call in our lives. The Divine Voice never ceases to beckon. It calls to us in the music of the natural world, in the love of family and friends, in our ability to learn and grow, in the beauty of human arts and culture, in the creation and sustenance of caring community, and in our work for justice and peace. Our challenge, like Jacob’s, is to become more fully aware of that sacred presence and acknowledge it.
It is no accident that the final letter in the first word of Leviticus, Vaykira is an aleph. It’s the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, and it is silent. And here, in the opening of Leviticus, it is also much smaller than any of the other letters on the page, hovering slightly above the line. This makes it look like the word could be Vayikar, which means, “God chanced upon. . . .” Torah is asking us to read—and look and listen—closely, to experience, in the silences, what Elijah will later describe as God’s “still, small voice.” When this happens, what once seemed like chance becomes constant calling—to holiness and life and blessing.
When we experience life this way, then, like our father Jacob, we might have the privilege to proclaim: “God was in this place, and I did not know it.”