Parashat Vayikra / I Came, I Called, I Spoke

We can deduce that, in the tent of meeting, God first calls out to Moses and then speaks to him. But why does the Torah have to explicitly state this in Leviticus 1:1?

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The Book of Leviticus opens with a terse description of how God approaches Moses: “And the Lord called unto Moses, and spoke unto him out of the tent of meeting, saying ...” (Leviticus 1:1). The two verbs “called” and “spoke” characterize the manner in which God turns to Moses.

In the midrashic work Sifre (Nedava, Section 2), the homilist concludes that God “first issues the call and then he speaks,” going on to convey the laws that will be presented henceforth in great detail. The homilist then explains why the Torah uses the two verbs and tries to show why other passages in the text cannot be used to prove why, each time God speaks to Moses, he first calls out to him: “It is written, ‘called’ and ‘spoke.’ We have learned that, both here and in the burning bush passage, God speaks, and that, both in the latter passage and here, God first issues the call, then speaks.”

In the Torah’s description of the burning bush, the midrash continues: “Moses said: ‘I will turn aside now, and see this great sight, why the bush is not burnt.’ And when the Lord saw that he turned aside to see, God called unto him out of the midst of the bush, and said: ‘Moses, Moses.’ And he said: ‘Here am I’” (Exodus 3:3-4).

We learn from this passage that when God reveals himself, he first calls out to Moses. If so, why does Leviticus 1:1 use the two above-mentioned verbs to describe the situation? The midrash says that the two passages cannot be compared: “If we say that, in the burning bush passage, God first calls out to Moses and then speaks to him, could we not say that, when God speaks to Moses from the tent of meeting [that is, in Leviticus 1:1], he first calls out to Moses, then speaks to him?”

“The burning bush passage is the first occasion on which God initially calls out to Moses and then speaks to him. It is the first time God reveals himself to Moses and thus it is clear that, before addressing him, God calls out. However, when God reveals himself to Moses from the tent of meeting, this is not the first time Moses witnesses a divine revelation. It is thus logical to assume that perhaps God does not first call out to Moses before speaking to him. That is the reason why the opening text in Leviticus, which is also the opening of this week’s portion, Parashat Vayikra (Leviticus 1:1 - 5:26), explicitly states that God does call out before speaking to Moses.

“God’s speaking at Mount Sinai proves that first, he calls out to Moses, and then speaks to him. On the mount, God reveals himself to Moses. As it is written: ‘And Moses went up unto God, and the Lord called unto him out of the mountain, saying’ [Exodus 19:3]. The event on Mount Sinai is not the first time God reveals himself; yet, here as well, the Torah explicitly states that God first calls out to Moses and then speaks to him. If we understand from the burning bush passage that God first calls out to Moses and then speaks to him, why does the Torah describe the same process again, in the Mount Sinai passage?”

The midrash goes on to ask: “If we say that, on Mount Sinai, God speaks to all the Children of Israel, can we say that, in the tent of meeting, God does not speak to all of them? On Mount Sinai, God speaks to his entire nation, as it is written, ‘ and the Lord called unto him out of the mountain, saying: “Thus shalt thou say to the house of Jacob, and tell the children of Israel”’ (Exod. 19:3).”

The language then shifts to second-person plural, when God appeals to the entire nation: “Ye have seen what I did unto the Egyptians” (Exod. 19:4). In Leviticus 1:1, in the tent of meeting, God speaks only to Moses. The difference between these two scenes could lead one to assume that they represent two different situations and two courses of action. Maybe, for that reason, the Torah explicitly states, in Leviticus 1:1, that God first calls out to Moses and then speaks to him.

The midrash ponders: “We have before us a common denominator in two scenes. God’s speaking from the burning bush, which is the first time he addresses Moses, is unlike the event on Mount Sinai, which is not the first time he speaks to Moses. Moreover, God’s speech on Mount Sinai, to all the Children of Israel, is not like the scene with the burning bush, when he does not address them. What is common to both is that God first calls out to Moses before speaking to him. Thus, we can conclude that, whenever God speaks to Moses, he first calls out to him.”

Despite the differences between the burning bush and Mount Sinai scenes, on the one hand, and God’s revelation in the tent of meeting in Leviticus 1:1, on the other, the common denominator “outweighs” the differences. We can deduce that, in both cases, God first calls out to Moses and then speaks to him. We can deduce from this common denominator that, in the tent of meeting, God first calls out to Moses and then speaks to him. But why does the Torah have to state this explicitly in Leviticus 1:1?

The midrashic homily ends dramatically: “What is the common denominator [in the two scenes]? In both cases, God speaks to Moses from the midst of flames, but before he speaks, he calls out to Moses. Thus, whenever God speaks to Moses from the midst of flames, God first calls out and then addresses him. However, the tent of meeting scene is different, because God does not speak to Moses from the midst of flames. For that reason, the Torah explicitly states ‘called’ and ‘spoke’: God first calls out to Moses and then speaks to him.”

The first two above-mentioned scenes depicting God’s revelation share an additional common denominator: In both, the divine revelation takes places in the midst of fire. The reader might then conclude, argues the midrash, that only when divine revelations takes place in such circumstances does God call out to Moses before speaking to him. In the tent of meeting, where there are no flames, the Torah’s text uses “called” and “spoke.”

This rather circuitous homily characterizes the approach of halakhic midrash – midrashic literature that seeks to link the Torah’s text to Jewish religious – to explicating Leviticus. The midrash builds theoretical scholarly structures, dismantles them, queries phrasing and replaces certain elements so that it can continue probing the text.

In the final analysis, the midrash aims to return to and focus on the language of the verse and to prove that every part of it is essential. The midrash’s purpose is to prove the ultimate superiority of the Torah text both vis-à-vis theoretical learning and vis-à-vis human speculation.

The above midrash first assumes that the three instances of divine revelation (within the burning bush, on Mount Sinai and in the tent of meeting) have a common thread. It then highlights the differences between them, concluding that each instance is unique and has its own set of literary characteristics. Thus, a situation arises in which the Torah must explicitly state that God first calls out to Moses and then speaks to him.

But what is even more important is that this midrash defines the unique nature of divine revelation in the tent of meeting. Unlike the public declaration of the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai and unlike the pyrotechnics of the burning bush, the laws governing the sacrifices to be offered in the portable tabernacle and, later, in the Temple in Jerusalem, are conveyed within the context of a different kind of divine revelation – in a quiet, intimate atmosphere lacking smoke or fire. This third divine revelation more closely resembles a conversation between two friends, who first call out to one another before engaging in conversation.