Sign up now to receive our regular news briefs.

Between Destiny and Chance

March 14, 2013 1:12 am 2 comments

A Torah scroll. Photo: Algemeiner.

The third book of the Torah is known in English as “Leviticus”, a word deriving from Greek and Latin, meaning, “pertaining to the Levites”. This reflects the fact that in Judaism the priests – descendants of Aaron – were from the tribe of Levi, and that the ancient rabbinic name for the book was Torat Cohanim, “the law of the priests”. It is an appropriate title. Whereas Shemot (Exodus) and Bamidbar (Numbers) are shot through with narrative, the book between them is largely about sacrifices and the rituals associated, first with the Tabernacle and later with the Temple in Jerusalem. It is, as the name Torat Cohanim implies, about the priests and their function as guardians of the sacred.

By contrast, the traditional name Vayikra, “And He called”, seems merely accidental. Vayikra just happens to be the first word of the book, and there is no connection between it and the subjects with which it deals. The truth, I will argue here, is otherwise. There is a deep connection between the word Vayikra and the underlying message of the book as a whole.

To understand this we must note that there is something unusual about the way the word appears in a sefer Torah. Its last letter, an aleph, is written small – almost as if it barely existed. The standard-size letters spell out the word vayikar, meaning, “he encountered, he chanced upon.” Unlike vayikra, which refers to a call, a summons, a meeting by request, vayikar suggests an accidental meeting, a mere happening.

With their sensitivity to nuance, the sages noted the difference between the call to Moses with which the book begins, and G-d’s appearance to the pagan prophet Bilaam. This is how the midrash puts it:

What is the difference between the prophets of Israel and the prophets of the pagan nations of the world? . . . R. Hama ben Hanina said: The Holy One blessed be He reveals himself to the pagan nations by an incomplete form of address, as it is said, “And the Lord appeared to Bilaam”, whereas to the prophets of Israel He appears in a complete form of address, as it is said, “And He called to Moses.”

Rashi is more explicit:

All [G-d’s] communications [to Moses], whether they use the words “speak” or “say” or “command” were preceded by a call [keri’ah] which is a term of endearment, used by the angels when they address one another, as it is said “And one called to the other” [vekara zeh el zeh, Isaiah 6:3). However, to the prophets of the nations of the world, His appearance is described by an expression signifying a casual encounter and uncleanness, as it says, “And the Lord appeared to Bilaam.”

The Baal HaTurim goes one stage further, commenting on the small aleph:

Moses was both great and humble, and wanted only to write Vayikar, signifying “chance”, as if the Holy One blessed be He appeared to him only in a dream, as it says of Bilaam [vayikar, without an aleph] – suggesting that G-d appeared to him by mere chance. However, G-d told him to write the word with an aleph. Moses then said to Him, because of his extreme humility, that he would only write an aleph that was smaller than the other alephs in the Torah, and he did indeed write it small.

Something of great significance is being hinted at here, but before taking it further, let us turn to the end of the book. Just before the end, in the sedra of Bechukotai, there occurs one of the two most terrifying passages in the Torah. It is known as the tokhachah (the other appears in Devarim 28), and it details the terrible fate that will befall the Jewish people if it fails to keep its covenant with G-d:

I will bring such insecurity upon those of you who survive in your enemies’ land that the sound of a driven leaf will make them flee from the sword. They will fall with no one chasing them . . . The land of your enemies will consume you. (26: 36-38)

Yet despite the shocking nature of the forewarning, the passage ends with a note of consolation:

I will remember My covenant with Jacob, as well as My covenant with Isaac and My covenant with Abraham. I will remember the land . . . Even when they are in their enemies’ land, I will not reject them or abhor them so as to destroy them completely, breaking My covenant with them. I am the Lord their G-d. But for their sake I will remember the covenant with their ancestors whom I brought out of Egypt in the sight of the nations to be their G-d, I am the Lord. (26: 42, 44)

The key-word of the passage is the word keri. It appears exactly seven times in the tokhachah – a sure sign of significance. Here are two of them by way of example:

“If in spite of this you still do not listen to Me but continue to be hostile towards Me, then in My anger I will be hostile towards you, and I myself will punish you seven times for your sins.” (26: 27-28) What does the word keri mean? I have translated it here as “hostile”. There are other suggestions. The Targum reads it as “harden yourselves”, Rashbam as “refuse”, Ibn Ezra as “overconfident”, Saadia as “rebellious”.

However, Rambam gives it a completely different interpretation, and does so in a halakhic context:

A positive scriptural command prescribes prayer and the sounding of the alarm with trumpets whenever trouble befalls the community. For when Scripture says, “Against the adversary that oppresses you, then you shall sound an alarm with the trumpets” the meaning is: Cry out in prayer and sound an alarm . . . This is one of the paths to repentance, for when the community cries out in prayer and sounds an alarm when threatened by trouble, everyone realises that evil has come on them as a result of their own wrongdoing . . . and that repentance will cause the trouble to be removed.

If, however, the people do not cry out in prayer and do not sound an alarm but merely say that it is the way of the world for such a thing to happen to them, and that their trouble is a matter of pure chance, they have chosen a cruel path which will cause them to continue in their wrongdoing, and thus bring additional troubles on them. For when Scripture says, “If you continue to be keri towards Me, then in My anger I will be keri towards you”, it means: If, when I bring trouble upon you in order to cause you to repent, you say that the trouble is purely accidental, then I will add to your trouble the anger of being-left-to-chance. (Mishneh Torah, Taaniyot, 1:1-3)

Rambam understands keri to be related to the word mikreh, meaning “chance”. The curses, in his interpretation, are not Divine retribution as such. It will not be G-d who makes Israel suffer: it will be other human beings. What will happen is simply that G-d will withdraw His protection. Israel will have to face the world alone, without the sheltering presence of G-d. This, for Rambam, is simple, inescapable measure-for-measure (middah kenegged middah). If Israel believe in Divine providence, they will be blessed by Divine providence. If they see history as mere chance – what Joseph Heller, author of Catch-22, called “a trashbag of random coincidences blown open by the wind” – then indeed they will be left to chance. Being a small, vulnerable nation, chance will not be kind to them.

We are now in a position to understand the remarkable proposition linking the beginning of Vayikra to the end – and one of the most profound of all spiritual truths. The difference between mikra and mikreh – between history as G-d’s call and history as one event after another with no underlying purpose or meaning – is, in the Hebrew language, almost imperceptible. The words sound the same. The only difference is that the former has an aleph while the latter does not (the significance of the aleph is obvious: the first letter of the alphabet, the first letter of the Ten Commandments, the “I” of G-d).

The letter aleph is almost inaudible. Its appearance in a sefer Torah at the beginning of Vayikra (the “small aleph“) is almost invisible. Do not expect – the Torah is intimating – that the presence of G-d in history will always be as clear and unambiguous as it was during the exodus from Egypt and the division of the Red Sea. For much of the time it will depend on your own sensitivity. For those who look, it will be visible. For those who listen, it can be heard. But first you have to look and listen. If you choose not to see or hear, then Vayikra will become Vayikar. The call will be inaudible. History will seem mere chance. There is nothing incoherent about such an idea. Those who believe it will have much to justify it. Indeed, says G-d in the tokhachah: if you believe that history is chance, then it will become so. But in truth it is not so. The history of the Jewish people – as even non-Jews such as Pascal, Rousseau and Tolstoy eloquently stated – testifies to the presence of G-d in their midst. Only thus could such a small, vulnerable, relatively powerless people survive, and still say today – after the Holocaust – am yisrael chai, the Jewish people lives. And just as Jewish history is not mere chance, so it is no mere coincidence that the first word of the central book of the Torah is Vayikra, “And He called”. To be a Jew is to believe that what happens to us as a people is G-d’s call to us – to become “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”

To read more writings and teachings from the Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, please visit www.chiefrabbi.org.

2 Comments

  • And sometimes people over-analyse so they can hear and see what they want to hear and see. What they don’t see and won’t hear is: sometimes, a word is just a word.

    • Why copy something meticulously leter by letter for thousands of years if not every word had significance.

      The beauty of the TalmudS is that opinions are given for the future.The Rabbis of old who opined I am sure were hoping that the next generations would take up the ball and run with it-not leave it on the 30-yard line to which they had carried it.
      Judaism is alive and vibrant because it is not static in thought.The TalmudS are the thoughts of an entire people evolving toward a truer understanding.

Leave a Reply

Please note: comments may be published in the Algemeiner print edition. Comments written in all caps will be deleted.


Current day month ye@r *

More...

  • Arts and Culture Second Jaffa Jazz Festival to Reunite International, Israeli Musicians

    Second Jaffa Jazz Festival to Reunite International, Israeli Musicians

    For the second time, Israel will host the Jaffa Jazz Festival, according to Broadwayworld.com. The festival will unite 43 Israeli musicians and eight international artists for a three-day event. The program will include a special performance by an ensemble of top jazz students studying at Belgium’s Royal Conservatoire of Antwerp, the Belgrade Music Academy in Serbia, Israel’s Rimon School of Music and the jazz program of the Israel Conservatory of Music in Tel Aviv. There will also be a jazz show for children led by Israeli saxophonist […]

    Read more →
  • Sports Israel’s First NASCAR Driver Revved Up to Win

    Israel’s First NASCAR Driver Revved Up to Win

    JNS.org – As a young boy growing up in Ashdod, Israel, Alon Day got his first go-kart at age 9. By 15, he was racing them. Less than a decade later, Day has become the first Israeli professional race car driver on the NASCAR circuit. He made history by competing in NASCAR’s Xfinity Series race at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course on August 13. “Driving a race car is not like any other sport,” Day told JNS.org. “You are actually almost flying […]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Writer of Popular Kids Series to Premiere Autobiographical Solo Show ‘Not That Jewish’

    Writer of Popular Kids Series to Premiere Autobiographical Solo Show ‘Not That Jewish’

    The writer of a popular children’s television series will premiere an off-Broadway solo show called “Not That Jewish,” according to The Hollywood Reporter. Written and performed by Monica Piper — the Emmy Award-winning showrunner of Nickelodeon’s “Rugrats” — the show is described as “the autobiographical telling of a Jew…’ish’ girl’s life.” “Not That Jewish” explores Piper’s Bronx upbringing in a show-business family, her comedy-club debut and her “almost” night with former Yankees legend Mickey Mantle. “Audiences can expect to leave laughed-out, a little teary-eyed and […]

    Read more →
  • Sports Scottish Soccer Team Will Fly to Israel on Private Jet Used by Madonna

    Scottish Soccer Team Will Fly to Israel on Private Jet Used by Madonna

    Scotland’s Celtic soccer club will fly to Israel with the same private jet Madonna used while on tour, The Scotsman reported on Monday. According to the report, the team is heading for the Jewish state to compete against Israel’s Hapoel Be’er Sheva on Tuesday night, and will be transported in the customized, luxurious Boeing 757-200 that the pop icon used in New Zealand for her six-month Rebel Heart tour, which wrapped up in March. The plane is on loan from Greece-based GainJet Aviation and can accommodate 62 passengers. The […]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Revealed: Actor Jonah Hill Officiated at Wedding of Fellow Jewish Star, Singer Adam Levine

    Revealed: Actor Jonah Hill Officiated at Wedding of Fellow Jewish Star, Singer Adam Levine

    Jewish actor Jonah Hill revealed on Wednesday morning that he had officiated the wedding of good friend and Maroon 5 frontman Adam Levine. The “War Dogs” actor, 32, was a guest on Sirius XM’s The Howard Stern Show when the conversation turned to Levine’s July 2014 wedding to Victoria’s Secret model Behati Prinsloo. Hill said that after he was asked to officiate the nuptials, he started getting worried about the type of speech he was going to deliver. “I’m writing all these things, and then I […]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Music Jewish Indie Rocker Dedicates New ‘Refugee’ Track to Grandfather Who Fled Nazi Persecution

    Jewish Indie Rocker Dedicates New ‘Refugee’ Track to Grandfather Who Fled Nazi Persecution

    Jewish indie singer Ezra Furman released a song on Wednesday that he said was dedicated to his grandfather, who escaped Nazi persecution. Furman told the website Consequence of Sound that the new track, called “The Refugee,” is his “first song entirely concerned with my Jewish background and present, a song dedicated to my grandfather who fled the Nazis, as well as to all of the refugees desperate for a home today.” He added, “May all the wanderers find the homes they seek, and […]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Uncanny Toy Replica of Israeli ‘Wonder Woman’ Gal Gadot Auctioning on eBay for Over $1,600

    Uncanny Toy Replica of Israeli ‘Wonder Woman’ Gal Gadot Auctioning on eBay for Over $1,600

    An artist is auctioning on eBay a Wonder Woman doll he purchased and repainted to create an uncanny replica of Israeli actress Gal Gadot, who will play the superhero in an upcoming 2017 spin-off film. Noel Cruz purchased a 19-inch action figure of the Batman v Superman star and replaced its plastic hair with a new wig, and added a material belt and Princess Diana’s lasso, according to the blog Io9, which first reported on Cruz’s work. He then painted the doll to make it look like the […]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture British Jewish Star Daniel Radcliffe Hopes New Movie About Neo-Nazis Will Spark Dialogue to Defeat Antisemitic Rhetoric

    British Jewish Star Daniel Radcliffe Hopes New Movie About Neo-Nazis Will Spark Dialogue to Defeat Antisemitic Rhetoric

    Racist and antisemitic rhetoric supported by white supremacists can be defeated by opening channels for meaningful dialogue, British-Jewish actor Daniel Radcliffe said, ahead of the release of his new film, in which he plays an undercover FBI agent infiltrating a neo-Nazi group. “[White supremacist ideologies] have more power the less we talk about them. So hopefully this does start a kind of conversation, which would be a tiny part of a much larger conversation that needs to happen,” the actor, 27, told The […]

    Read more →