Thursday, 23 Mar 2023

Written by Rabbi Professor Jonathan Magonet

  Our colleague and teacher Rabbi Dr Albert Friedlander z’l was a magnificent wordsmith. In his teaching he was able to draw on his background in German language and culture, his broad range of philosophical and theological studies but, also, a whimsy and humour of his own. I remember one occasion, probably at short notice, he was invited to give a d’var torah on a Biblical passage which began ‘vay’dabber Adonai el mosheh’, ‘the Eternal spoke to Moses’. Rather than exploring the rest of the passage, he spent the entire time meditating aloud on the first word ‘vay’dabber’, ‘he spoke’. I don’t recall the details, but he may have explored the significance of the idea that God can communicate with human beings, and something on the nature and significance of speech itself, and perhaps the existential impact on the recipient of such an encounter, and so on. Albert could do that, and we miss him. This d’var torah is dedicated to his memory.

I thought of this incident when looking at the first six words of Parashat Vayikra, Leviticus 1:1. I cannot produce the range of ideas that Albert might have conjured up, but there is something puzzling about the opening of the sentence. The Hebrew wording is ‘vayikra el mosheh vay’dabber Adonai eilav’. It is conventionally translated as ‘The Eternal called to Moses and spoke to him’. But a literal translation would be something like: ‘He (subject unknown) called to Moses and the Eternal spoke to him …’  It is obvious that the subject of the verb ‘spoke’ is probably the same as the one who ‘called’, namely God, but why is the name withheld until the second verb? One possible answer presumably may lie in another oddity in the actual Hebrew text of the first word, ‘Vayikra’. In our Torah scrolls the final letter of the word, the aleph, is written very small and raised above the line. It almost looks as if it was added as an afterthought. Perhaps a scribe had neglected to include it by mistake and had to squeeze it in and subsequent generations of scribes simply reproduced it.

But a different possibility emerges if we look at another occasion when God ‘called’ to someone and spoke to him. It we turn to the Book of Numbers chapter 23 we are in the middle of the negotiation between God and the ‘diviner’ Balaam, who had been summoned by King Balak of Moab to curse Israel. The story is about the power of speech to effect events, because Balaam had the reputation: ‘Whoever you bless is blessed, and whoever you curse is cursed!’ (Numbers 22:6). Though God has told Balaam that he is not to curse Israel, Balaam nevertheless attempts to fulfil King Balak’s commission with embarrassing consequences to himself, including being upstaged by his talking donkey. Finally God permits Balaam to go, but on condition that he only says the words that God puts in his mouth. In Numbers 23:16 we find: ‘Vayikkar Adonai el Bil’am vayasem davar b’fiv’, ‘The Etermal ‘happened upon’ Balaam and placed a word in his mouth.

The verb vayikkar is from the root ‘karah’ which means to ‘happen’. It is spelled with a final letter ‘heh’ which disappears in some verbal forms. But the root sounds the same as ‘kara’ with a final ‘aleph’ which means ‘to call. So in the case of God’s speaking to Balaam, it is as if God just ‘happened’ upon him and spoke. Nevertheless, such ‘happenings’, using the verb karah, may not be entirely accidental. When Ruth goes to work in the fields in order to support her mother-in-law Naomi, she ‘happened to come to the part of the field that belonged to Boaz’ (Ruth 2:3). Depending on how one reads the context, Ruth reached the portion of the field that belonged to Boaz completely by chance, or she was deliberately looking for it, knowing that Boaz was a kinsman of Naomi, but ‘happened’ to arrive there at once. A similar ambiguity occurs when Abraham’s servant sets a test for the girl who he needs to find as a wife for Isaac. He asks God ‘hak’rei-na lifanai’, ‘let it happen before me’ (Genesis 24:12) – and then he sets an almost impossible condition for the girl to fulfil as if to sabotage the whole thing. Hence his astonishment when the girl sets about the enormous task of providing water for the servant’s ten very thirsty camels!

So what might all this tell us about the unusual spelling of ‘vayikra’ in Leviticus 1:1? When God ‘happens upon’ a foreign threat to Israel like Balaam the Biblical narrator uses the verb ‘karah’ with a ‘heh’, implying an almost accidental encounter, ‘vayikkar’. On that basis it is possible that the same principle was intended to apply to God’s encounter with Moses in our opening verse – so that it began that God ‘happened upon’ (vayikkar) Moses and spoke to him. Alternatively, the narrator might have had that shortened form of the verb in mind and mistakenly wrote it in the scroll. In either case, out of respect for Moses, the ‘aleph’ was added to insist that the meeting was no accident and God deliberately called to Moses by name, vayikra. (An interpretation linking the different usages of the two verbs can be found in Bereshit Rabbah 52 and Vayikra Rabbah 1).

But a variation can be found in the commentary of Ba’al ha-turim on Leviticus 1:1. It was Moses who, because of his modesty, wanted to write in the Torah ‘vayikkar’, as if God just ‘happened’ to meet him. But God insisted that Moses should write ‘vayikra’, that God deliberately ‘called’ to Moses, because God valued him. A variation suggests that Moses, though obedient to God’s decision, made his own compromise. Out of humility he added the ‘aleph’ but small – because it is the first letter of the word ‘anochi’, which means ‘I’. As the Bible informs us: ‘Now the man Moses was very modest, more than all the people that were on the face of the earth.’ (Numbers 12:3)


Rabbi Professor Jonathan Magonet


The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.