Friday, March 19, 2010

Vayikra (Aggadah)

For more teachings on the parashah, see the archives to the blog, below, for March 2006, 2007, 2008, and 2009.

Calling and Speaking

This week, as I hope to include a lengthy supplement regarding an issue that has recently drawn much public attention, I will present a short aggadic saying with some brief reflections. At b. Yoma 4b we read:

“And He called to Moses, and [He] spoke to him..” {Lev 1:1). It was taught: Why did He precede calling to speech? The Torah taught us proper behavior (derekh eretz), that a person should not say anything to his neighbor until he has called him.

This pithy saying teaches a seemingly simple idea, albeit one with far reaching implications. We speak with other people perhaps hundreds of times a day, most often for purely functional purposes. What does it mean to call a person? It is a preliminary to speech: I tell you that I am addressing you, that I wish to speak with you, even if it is to ask directions in the street or to ask the price of an item in a shop. Nevertheless, before saying whatever I need to say, it ought to be preceded by a call: “Yitzhak,” “Mr. Cohen,” or “Good morning,” “Sir/Ms,” “Hello,” or even “Excuse me” or “May I ask you something.” Its purpose is, first of all, to call the other person’s attention to the fact that I wish to speak with him, and not to suddenly begin speaking to him/her without any warning.

Implicit in this, to my mind, is the idea of human dignity: that each person is a world unto himself, a being created in then image of God; by addressing a person before beginning to speak with him/her (if possible, by name, the name being the signifier of the person’s identity and his unique world), we acknowledge this dignity Indeed, one of the commentators notes that, in several places, God addresses people by calling to them twice: “Avraham, Avraham” (Gen 22:1); “Ya’akov Ya’akov” (Gen 46:2); “Moshe Moshe” (Exod 3:4); “Shmuel, Shmuel” (1 Sam 3:10).

A second possible implication is the Buberian idea of dialogue: that speech between people (or with any being) has significance beyond the actual contents of the conversation; that speech itself begins with the act of calling, of speaking the other’s name, of what Buber calls “speaking the basic word ‘Thou’ or ‘It.’” The act of calling is a recognition of the other as an Other, as a potential “Thou.” Interestingly, also, is that Art Green entitled one of his first books exploring his, and our generation’s, theological quest, Seek My Face, Speak My Name—as if to say, the elemental act of speaking the other’s name is of profound significance.

A third point is the notion of imitatio dei, the “imitation of God”: that is, that as simple a rule of human behavior as that one addresses others before speaking to them is inferred from God’s own behavior—viz., that before speaking to Moses, even in the Tent of Meeting, a place specially designated for such communication, He first called to him.

How does all this square with the contemporary milieu, in which much of our discourse with others is conducted through increasingly anonymous media in which we do not see the other (telephone) or even hear his/her voice (email, SMS, twitters , etc.). What challenges to traditional notions of Derekh Eretz, of behavior guided by respect for the essential dignity of the human being, are posed by these new technologies? Is human dignity becoming an archaic, old-fashioned notion for which there is no room in our fast-paced, multi-tasking, post-modern age?

Finally: the great importance of this principle may be suggested by the fact that one of the five books of the Torah, the one we begin to read this Shabbat, takes its name from this phrase: Viyikra—“and He called.”

In this connection, this week I saw an interesting midrash on Song of Songs that makes much of the fact that Vayikra is the central book of the Torah. Commenting on a verse in Shir ha-Shirim celebrating the beloved’s belly as being like “a heap of wheat,” the midrash notes that the belly is in the center of the body, “just as Torat kohanim (“The Teaching of the Priests,” the old Rabbinic name for Leviticus) is located in the middle, with two books before it and two after it” (Songs Rabbah 7:3, §3; my thanks to Tamar Kadari, through whose work I became aware of this passage). And indeed, from an halakhic perspective, this book is the central and richest one in the entire Torah. Through the mitzvit, one might say, we hear God’s voice calling to us.


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