Sunday, March 10, 2019

Vayikra (The Calling)

God called to Moses. . .
            (Leviticus 1:1)

I don't remember a voice
On a dark, lonesome road
When I started this journey so long ago
I was only just trying to outrun the noise
There was never a question of having a choice
            (Mary Chapin Carpenter, “The Calling”)

This week’s Torah portion begins the book of Leviticus.  Its English name is derived from the Greek and Latin translations, which reference the text’s overarching theme of priestly rites executed by the Levites.  In Hebrew, by contrast, both the book and the portion are known by its opening word Vayikra—“God called. . .”

As written in the scroll, this word stands out in two respects.  First, its unusual usage. Time and again, the Torah starts a passage with the standard formulation: “Va-yidaber Adonai. . . God spoke to Moses, saying. . .”   Why, then, does Leviticus begin: “Vayikra Adonai. . . God called unto Moses. . .”?  Second, its calligraphy.  The letter aleph, at the end of the word vayikra, is always written conspicuously smaller than the rest of the Torah text.  What is the basis for this scribal tradition?

The commentary of Kitzur Baal HaTurim offers an elegant and insightful answer to both of these questions.  He writes: The aleph of vayikra is small because Moses intended to write vayikar, meaning “He happened upon God.”  But God told him to write an aleph on the end (transforming vayikar into vayikra, meaning “God called him”) and so he wrote the aleph smaller than the rest of the passage.

In other words, in his great humility, Moses sees himself as a kind of inadvertent prophet, falling into his leadership role as if by chance.  God reminds him that his position is, in fact, a very deliberate calling.  Moses acknowledges God’s response, but consciously minimizes the single, silent letter that transforms accident into intention—which is also, uncoincidentally, the first letter of the Hebrew word anochi, meaning “I” or ego.

With this interaction, God and Moses set a high bar for the rest of us.  The Holy One teaches: Do not experience your life as a series of accidents that befall you; approach it with a sense of purpose and power.  To which Moses adds: But be humble and beware, lest this attitude lead you into arrogance.

Remember that you have a calling—and so does everyone else.


Mary Chapin Carpenter speaks to this truth powerfully in her 2007 song, “The Calling.”
She begins with the call that comes, often in unexpected times and places:

Deep in your blood or a voice in your head
On a dark lonesome highway It finds you instead
So certain it knows you, you can't turn away
Something or someone has found you today

To which we respond—because if we want to live with integrity, we know that resistance is futile:

Whatever the calling, the stumbling or falling
You follow it knowing there's no other way

As the song continues, Carpenter lays out the cost for those who choose to ignore the call:

There are zealots and preachers
And readers of dreams
The righteous yell loudest
And the saved rise to sing
The lonely and lost are just waiting to hear
Any moment their purpose
Will be perfectly clear
And then life would mean more
Than their name on their door
And that far distant shore that's so near
They'd hear the calling
The stumbling and falling
They'd follow it knowing
There's nothing to fear

As Moses taught, the call does not come to the arrogant.  It is not given to the zealots, the (self)-righteous, the conmen of this world, whose goal is the kind of fame and fortune symbolized by their names engraved on the doors to their plush offices.  This journey invites only those who are willing to stumble and fall, again and again.  A calling does not confer a life of ease; just the opposite—it challenges the recipient to harken to the voices of her or his higher angels, and that path is beautiful precisely because it is arduous.

Carpenter concludes:

I don't remember a voice
On a dark, lonesome road
When I started this journey so long ago
I was only just trying to outrun the noise
There was never a question of having a choice

Jesus or genie, maybe he's seen me
But who would believe me I can't really say
Whatever the calling, stumbling and falling
I got through it knowing there's no other way
There's no other way

The Holy One calls out to each and every one of us.  As Pirkei Avot teaches, There is no person who does not have their hour.  But not everyone accepts the call, because it is, always, demanding.

Still, for those who say yes, there is no other way.

To hear Mary Chapin Carpenter singing “The Calling”: 

1 comment:

B2 said...

Foreward to achievement and wisdom