When We’re Called – A Lesson from Leviticus

by Rabbi Ilana Zietman / March 27, 2020

Friday, March 26 – Parshat Vayikra

This week, we begin a new book of the Torah, Leviticus. Leviticus is the book of the priests (the Levites, get it?) who served as officiants in the ancient Temple, offering sacrifices and such. 

While we’ve been swept up in the world of stories throughout Genesis and Exodus, Leviticus, although it does contain some fascinating narrative as well, reads much more like an instruction manual. See this from the first three lines:

God called to Moses and spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting, saying: Speak to the Israelite people, and say to them: When any of you presents an offering of cattle, they shall choose their offering from the herd or from the flock. If their offering is a burnt offering from the herd, they shall make that offering a male without blemish. They shall bring it to the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, for acceptance on their behalf before the Lord.

Over the next several weeks, I aim to bring out the beauty (and horror) of Leviticus, but today, I just want to focus on one word, vayikra

Vayikra means “called.” It is the first word of Leviticus, “God called to Moses.” This is why the Hebrew name of the book is indeed called Vayikra

Lately, I’ve been thinking about what it is to have and respond to a calling. At different points in our lives, we experience a strong feeling that there’s something we really want or need to do. Sometimes, we’re immediately ready to meet that call and sometimes, we can be more reluctant, tired or afraid. 

The rabbis of yore were intrigued by the potential intricacies of responding to a calling and had a lot to say about how Moses responded to his. They read the very first part of Leviticus as Moses receiving yet another calling. 

Looking back at Moses’ entire trajectory through the lens of Leviticus, they said,

You find that when God was revealed to Moses from the midst of the burning bush, Moses hid his face from God as it is said, “And Moses hid his face…” (Exodus 3:6). Because of this, God said to him, “Come now and I will send you to Pharaoh” (Exodus 3:10). Rabbi  Eleazer said, what God really meant was, ‘If you will not deliver them, no one else will.”

At the Red Sea, Moses stood aside, and so God said to him, “Lift you up your staff and stretch out your hand over the sea and divide it,” (Exodus 14:15) as much as to say: “If you will not divide it, no one else will divide it.” At Mount Sinai, too, Moses stood aside and God said to him, “Come up unto the Lord, you” (Exodus 24:1) as if to say: “If you will not come up, no one else will come up.” 

And even here, in the Tent of Meeting, Moses still stood aside, so God said:“Until when will you keep yourself low? The hour waits but for you!” you have proof that this is so, for out of them all, the divine word called to none but Moses as it is written, “Vayikra el Moshe…” “God called to Moses” (Leviticus 1:1).

It might be hard to imagine such a figure like Moses shirking from his call at every step of the way, especially now, after he had been through so much with the Israelite people already, taking them out of Egypt and leading them through the desert. But we see that maybe this was his M/O throughout the Torah! Perhaps it was from humility or perhaps it was also because of deep insecurity, resentment or fear. All are fair possibilities. 

Inspired by this week’s Torah reading, the rabbis step in and imagine that God gets so frustrated with Moses waiting to lean in to his calling that God has to yell, “Hello?! What are you waiting for? I need you!

I think we all want to be genuinely needed like this. It can be really, really nice to know that there’s something about us that only we can provide. 

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said it beautifully,

“A person insists not only on being satisfied but also on being able to satisfy, on being a need and not only having needs. Personal needs come and go, but one anxiety remains: Am I needed? There is no person who has not been moved by that anxiety.”

Given the uncertain times we’re in, I think we can do a better job of telling people we know what they mean to us and why we need and love them. That can be our first task for the weekend. Reach out to people and say,

“Here’s what I appreciate about you and here’s how I benefit from knowing you and only you.” 

But, as I alluded to earlier, being needed can also be really hard. Now, it’s not that we should refrain from asking for help when we have to, but I think this text begs the question of what we can we do to support those who are called in all the important and difficult ways right now. Of course, that’s each of us in the roles we play be they as a family member, co-worker, supervisor, roommate, or friend. Many, including healthcare professionals, social workers, therapists, clergy, teachers, grocery store employees and more are working around the clock to meet the increasing demands of our time, some seriously risking their health in the process

There are various responses to this unfolding every day, including just saying “thank you so so much” to those we meet. I also want to refer you to GatherDC’s Coronavirus Coping Guide to check out some concrete ways you can help alleviate the struggles of people responding to calls for help day in and day out. If you are one of these people in any way, let us know what you need! 

Lastly, if we are learning anything from this awful virus, it’s that we are all inextricably linked to one another. We need others and they need us. Let’s remember to do what we can to respond to the many possibilities that are our own callings and make it possible, safe and life-affirming for others to respond to theirs. 

Be well, Be safe. Shabbat Shalom. 


About the author: Rabbi Ilana Zietman is GatherDC’s Community Rabbi. She loves meeting new people and creating real and meaningful connections with them. When Rabbi Ilana isn’t officially Gathering, she can be found cooking in her kitchen, practicing yoga, going on hikes, desperately searching for good pizza in DC (seriously, help her find some!) and watching a lot of tv.






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