On the Weekly Torah Portion of Vayikra

hebraique1This week’s weekly Torah portion is vayikra (Leviticus 1 – 4). It is the first portion in the third book of the Torah, Leviticus (which in Hebrew is also called vayikra). The portion opens with Y-H-V-H calling out to Moses and instructing him about the ways of worship:

וַיִּקְרָא אֶל מֹשֶׁה וַיְדַבֵּר יְהוָה אֵלָיו מֵאֹהֶל מוֹעֵד לֵאמֹר:
He called to Moses; Y-H-V-H spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting. (Lev. 1:1)

Those familiar with the Torah and/or readers of this blog will remember that this portion follows many chapters in Exodus in which the text dealt mainly with the construction of the mishkan (the tabernacle, here referred to as “the Tent of Meeting”). As mentioned repeatedly in this blog, the Hassidic viewpoint is that the tabernacle is principally an internal structure, an inner sacred space within each person, and it’s up to each of us to “erect” this structure so that God can be realized as dwelling within.

According to this interpretation, therefore, when the Torah says that “Y-H-V-H spoke to him [Moses] from the Tent of Meeting”, it is a voice that Moses, who serves as a metaphor for each one of us, hears from within himself.

This is hinted at by an “anomaly” in the actual text of the Torah scroll. The first word of this Torah portion (and therefore, of the book of Leviticus), vayikra (ויקרא), ends with the letter aleph (א). This letter has the numerical value of 1, and stands for “The one without a second”–the one and only, i.e. God. But in this case, the letter is written smaller than other letters, almost like a superscript:

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In the commentary on the first portion of the Torah, bereshit, I mentioned that there are a few places in the Torah scroll in which the letters are written differently, e.g., larger, smaller, or turned at an abnormal angle. These “abnormalities” are neither typos nor decorative devices. Rather, they are used to highlight or amplify important metaphysical points.

The fact that the word vayikra, which means “He [God] called”, ends with a small aleph, highlights the fact that the voice of God that one hears is not a dramatic voice from outside through “cosmic loudspeakers” but rather a “still, small voice” that one hears from within.

And indeed, one of the early Hassids, Rabbi Menachem Nachum of Chernobyl, explains this in his book Meor Eynayim. He says that the small aleph indicates that He, the Master of the world, reduces Himself in order to be present in the soul of every human, to guide us towards Himself, towards aleph, towards the One.

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The word vayikra, which is translated here as “He called”, is from the root kara, which means “to read”, “to call out”, and “to proclaim”. It is identical to the same root in Arabic, qara (or kara; the use of K in Hebrew transliterations vs. Q in Arabic ones is due to differences in pronunciation).

Interestingly, the first word that was revealed to Muhammad and that started his mission was the word iqra (اقْرَأْ), which means to call out (or proclaim) as well as to read. In today’s traditional Qur’anic arrangement, this is the opening words of surah 96, but it is nevertheless understood as the first word of Allah that was revealed to the Prophet.

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In traditional Jewish religious education, the first text that young students of the Torah are exposed to soon after learning the alphabet is the book of vayikra. This is because this book is almost entirely devoted to the worship of God in the tabernacle (hence its Latin name, Leviticus, i.e., pertaining to the Levites, the priestly class, and their duties). This was thought of as the purest of subjects and therefore appropriate for beginning Torah study.

Copyright © 2014 Igal Harmelin-Moria
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