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Warm Calling (Vayikra)

The following is a short homiletic thought on this week’s Parshah, Vayikra. 

A cave painting found in the Cave of Altamira, in modern day Spain.

Long before humans developed the alphabet, they used art to concretize their thoughts; as early as the Stone Age, in fact, primitive Homo sapiens were putting together elaborate cave paintings in order to communicate with one another. But that method proved too cumbersome, and soon gave way to logograms, or “pictorial alphabets:” hieroglyphics in Egypt, hanzi in China, and, to some extent, cuneiform in Mesopotamia. In these writing systems, the word for “ox” actually looked like an ox, the word for “tree” actually looked like a tree, and so forth.

Needless to say, this elementary approach to writing spawned thousands of characters, rendering the system immensely complex. For this reason, picture-words were soon replaced with picture-letters, and eventually, language’s iconic component was abandoned entirely.  Yet in the brief period of transition, writing possessed a measure of sophistication without parallel in the history of orthography. The logograms, which evoked both verbal and visual associations, allowed their wielders to convey multiple layers of meaning with every stroke in a way that contemporary writers just cannot. Quite possibly, the intricately textured imagery of the Egyptian Love Poems or the Chinese Classic of Poetry will never find an English equivalent.

Elah Valley Pottery

Shard of pottery discovered in the Elah Valley in Israel and dated to the time of King Davd. The inscription was deciphered by professors at Haifa University and, the time of its finding, constituted the oldest known example of Hebrew writing.

Whether one can derive meaning from the forms of Hebrew letters, meanwhile, is an interesting question. In the Gemara (Sanhedrin 21b), Chazal raise the possibility that the letters with which we write our holy books nowadays aren’t the same ones that the original copy of the Torah was written in. But others disagree (ibid.), and within Kabbalistic thought, especially, it is quite common to interpret and attribute significance to the contours of our calligraphy.

So much for the issue of Hebrew letter shape. What about letter size? An interesting example to think about in this regard comes to us via the incipit of this week’s Parshah: “And he called [ויקרא] to Moshe, and God spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting, saying…” (Leviticus 1:1). The first word of our Parsha, from which it derives its title, is ויקרא, but if we check any sefer Torah in the world we will notice that the last letter of that word – the א – is written in superscript: it is smaller and higher than all the others. How come?

Almost universally, an increase in font size serves to add emphasis. Intuitively, then, we’d infer that letters whose size is decreased are being deliberately deemphasized. Even visually, the א in the word ויקרא doesn’t look like it belongs; it’s almost as if the Torah is trying to hint to us that we should read the word without the א there.

Notice the small א (circled) in the first word of this week’s Parshah.

So let’s try that. In Hebrew, the word ויקרא, without an א, becomes ויקר, and means “to happen upon” or “to occur by coincidence.” The best example comes from מגילת רות, the book of Ruth, where the navi tells us: “And behold! There occurred a coincidence [ויקר מקרה]: the field happened to belong to Boaz, who was of Elimilekh’s family” (Ruth 2:3). Other examples include the pesukim which describe Hashem’s “happening upon” [ויקר] Bilaam (Numbers 24:4,15), and the passuk which recounts how the nation of Amalek “happened upon” [אשר קרך בדרך] Bnei Yisrael in the wilderness (Deuteronomy 25:18). In short, ויקר, and the root ק.ר.ה more broadly, connotes something that just happens; something that occurs incidentally; something that takes places as if by chance. It is the verb which we use to explain events around us when they’d don’t appear to be governed by any higher order. Perhaps, as Rashi suggests (ad. loc.), it is even connected semantically to the word קר, or cold: after all, ויקר implies a cold, uncaring universe, in which things “happen” with no rhyme or reason.

It is precisely to this view of the world which our Parshah, and the book of Vayikra, generally, seeks to present an alternative. If there is one leitwort – one recurring word, or verbal root – in the book of Vayikra, it is ק.ר.ב. So, for example, we read in the second passuk of our Parshah, “When a person among you shall offer [יקריב] an offering [קרבן] to God…” (Vayikra 1:2). In context, the word קרבן and the verb יקריב are technical terms associated with the sacrificial rituals of the mishkan (Tabernacle) and beis hamikdash (Temple). But both words are etymologically connected to, and probably derived from, the Hebrew word for closeness, קרוב, and related to another word which crops up throughout sefer Vayikra, קרב: insides. Conceptually, then, the book of Vayikra is primarily concerned with the question of how humans can forge a close relationship, an intimate relationship, with God. Put another way, Vayikra is all about turning the cold world of ויקר into the warm encounter of ויקרב. And just like א precedes ב in the Hebrew alphabet, ויקר must first become ויקרא, in passuk א of our Parshah, before it can become ויקרב, as it were, in passuk ב: before we can come “close” to Hashem, we must learn to recognize His “call.”

Consider, in this vein, that the first clause of our passuk, ויקרא אל משה, doesn’t identify Hashem explicitly. Without the א there, it simply means “and something happened to Moshe.” But Moshe identifies this “something” as more than a product of circumstance. He correctly interprets that which befalls him as a revelation, a call from on high. That’s what allows the second half of our passuk to read, וידבר אליו ה’: “and Hashem spoke to him.” It was Moshe who “found” Hashem in what might otherwise have been passed off as nothing more than a chance occurrence. It was because Moshe knew how to “read” ויקר as ויקרא that Hashem could be “located” in the second half of our passuk.  Perhaps that is why the Torah placed a small א on ויקרא: in order to preserve the ambiguous continuum between ויקר and ויקרא; in order to preserve, literarily, the prophetic phenomenology which drives the subtle drama of our passuk.

And notice: the א, the letter that permits Moshe to parse this prophecy, is an unpronounced one. It is a silent semiotic which the Torah employs to signal that Hashem communicated with Moshe; and indeed, it is in silence that Hashem continues to communicate with us. He speaks through our “ויקר,” the events that shape our lives, which we must learn to interpret not as a cacophony of chance and circumstance, but rather as a “ויקרא”—a carefully conveyed call from above.

Shabbat shalom!


  1. Mike Shriqui says:

    Thank you very much Alex. I loved the insights and the creativity in this work! Shabbat Shalom.

  2. EWZS says:

    Thanks for the compelling insights, Alex. They inspired me to return to the puzzle of why Hashem tells Moshe to tell Pharoh “אלקי העבריים נקרה עלינו” in Ex 3:18, and then Moshe and Aharon instead say “אלקי העברים נקרא עלינו” when they speak to Pharaoh in 5:3. Hirsch points out, in line with your interpretation, that in 3:18, Hashem is suggesting that Moshe describe his encounter with God as akin to Bilam’s encounter, as a “chance” event over which human beings have no control and no responsibility. But then why the switch to describing the encounter as more directed and relational?

    One observation is that these words are all spoken rather than written. So it is not clear whether indeed Moshe heard it as “נקרה” or “נקרא” and it’s not clear which version they said to Pharaoh (which presumably would have been said in Egyptian, and presumably the two terms are not homophones in Egyptian…) So in fact there is no necessary contradiction, and instead the Torah is just hinting that in some way Moshe and Aharon emphasized one aspect of נקרא\נקרה rather than another. One possibility is to follow Hirsch on 5:3 (who unfortunately does not speak to the contrast) and that Moshe and Aharon as motivated to respond to Pharaoh’s refusal to recognize the God of the Hebrews in the prior verse. It would seem that they are motivated to emphasize (somehow)that their encounter was directed and relational rather than random. They are emphasizing not only that the God of the Hebrews exists and must be reckoned with but that they have a relationship with him– if they can be called once, they can be called again– and maybe vice versa. And interestingly, the very next time we find Pharaoh and Moshe/Aharon engaging in direct dialogue (8:4), we find him calling to them (“ויקרא”) asking them to intercede with them, a request that is based on the acknowledgement that God does not act randomly and that Moshe and Aharon’s relationship with God is the means to access such nonrandom intervention.

    Shavua tov and thanks again, Ezra

  3. And perfect for pre-Purim – thanx!

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