View of a mountain on a clear day with few clouds. Mount Sinai, Egypt.
View from Mount Sinai. Egypt.

The opening of Vayikra tell us that God first called to Moses and then communicated to him a specific message concerning the sacrificial offerings of the Sanctuary. Why “calling” and then “speaking?” Why not cut to the chase: “And the Lord spoke to Moses from the Tent of Meeting?”

Parshat Vayikra: Leviticus 1:1-5:26; Ezekiel 45:16-46:18.
(Shabbat HaChodesh)

The talmudic sage Rabbi Musia Rabbah explains that the Bible is giving us a lesson in good manners: Before someone commands another to do something, he must first ask permission to give the order. He even suggests that before someone begins speaking to another, one must ascertain that the person wishes to hear what he has to say. With great beauty, the rabbis suggest that even God Himself follows these laws of etiquette when addressing Moses: asking his permission before speaking to or commanding him.

The Ramban (Nahmanides) takes a completely opposite view, limiting this double language of addressing to the Sanctuary specifically: “This seemingly superfluous language of first calling and then speaking is not used elsewhere where God addresses Moses; it is used here because Moses would not otherwise have been permitted to enter the Tent of Meeting, would not otherwise have been permitted to be in such close proximity to the place where the Almighty was to be found.” From this second perspective, it is Moses who must first be summoned by God and receive Divine permission before he dares enter the Sacred Tent of Meeting of the exalted Holy of Holies.

This latter interpretation seems closest to the biblical text; Exodus specifically tells us that whenever a cloud covered the Sanctuary, Moses was prevented from entering the Tent of Meeting and communicating with the Divine. Leviticus opens with God summoning Moses into the Tent of Meeting, apparently signaling the departure of the cloud and the Divine permission for Moses to hear God’s words.

This scenario helps us understand God’s relationship with the Israelites in general and with Moses in particular.

Moses argues that the Almighty had promised to show His love by means of His Divine Name, to reveal to him His Divine attributes and to accept Israel as His special nation. God responds that indeed “My face will lead, I, Myself and not an angel-messenger,” and “I shall bring you (you, Moses, but not the nation) to your ultimate resting place.” Moses is not satisfied; he argues that God Himself, His “face” and not His angel-messenger, must lead the nation! Otherwise, he says, “Do not take us (the entire nation) out of this desert.” God agrees that although He cannot be in the midst of the nation, He can and will lead them, stepping in whenever necessary to make certain that Israel will never disappear and will eventually return to their homeland.

Israel remains a “work-in-progress” with God behind a cloud and “incommunicado.” Our nation, albeit imperfect, still serves as witnesses that the God of love and compassion exists and orchestrates historical redemption through Israel.

When individuals imbue their hearts, minds and souls with love, compassion, kindness, grace and peace, they cause God to become manifest, enabling them to communicate with God “face to face” like Moses. Then the cloud between Moses’ active intellect and God’s active intellect disappears, and Moses is enabled to teach and understand God’s Torah..

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone and chief rabbi of Efrat, Israel.