Would You Hear the Call of God?
It’s highly unlikely that you have heard of Angel and Carmen Perez. Indeed, until a short time ago, I had never heard of them either.
The Perezes were recovering heroin addicts who ran a tiny store in New York’s East Village during the late 1980s, and they used their business to help addicts seeking treatment. One day, a 22-year-old college student who was about to begin medical school randomly entered the shop, and started talking to the couple. As the conversation progressed, Angel and Carmen shared their detailed plans for a “Museum of Addiction,” and told the medical student of their futile attempts to elicit funds from various philanthropists to turn this dream into reality.
The young student, David Isay, was so inspired by their enthusiasm and genuineness that he decided to help get their story out to the media. He contacted a number of TV and radio stations, but was unable to arouse any interest — except for one tiny local community radio station. But the station did not have a field reporter to do an interview. So, at the station’s request, David conducted an interview and sent in the recording. As promised, the radio station aired the story, which was picked up by a national radio outlet. This led to more media coverage, and eventually a seed investor who helped the Perezes keep their tiny store open — and their dream alive.
It seems that the “Museum of Addiction” was never built. But that result is marginal compared to the consequence of Isay stumbling into the store that fateful day. As a result of his chance meeting with Angel and Carmen Perez, Isay abandoned his plans to become a doctor and instead launched a career in journalism, with a specific interest in recording oral histories.
Thirty years later, Isay has accumulated the largest collection of such testimonies in American media history, through an organization he founded called StoryCorps. According to Isay, he has recorded “more than 60,000 interviews among more than 100,000 participants in all 50 states.”
Isay’s decision to abandon medicine and respond to that voice telling him to pursue a career in social history journalism may help illuminate the first few words in this week’s Torah portion, Vayikra: “[a]nd He called to Moses, and God spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting.”
Standard translations identify the “caller” in the first part of the statement as God, but the Hebrew is ambiguous, and God only appears by name in the second part of the sentence.
The medieval commentator, Rashi, explained the phrase by saying that only Moses heard the voice. The inference that no one else heard the voice, if it was indeed God’s voice, could quite easily have been conveyed by the second part of the verse, which states categorically that“God spoke to him (Moses),” as opposed to anyone else.
The early Hasidic master, Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Epstein, in his epic work Ma’or vaShemesh, argued that all spoken words are limited. While they may be effective when they describe the physical world, it can be quite difficult for words to convey anything abstract. Often it is other forms of communication that can best convey the intangible. For example, the look in someone’s eyes, the expression on someone’s face, body language, or even something as indefinable as a ‘vibe,’ can all be powerful tools to communicate abstract ideas in ways that a thousand words could never do.
Attuning yourself to these unspoken communications requires a heightened sensitivity that is acutely conscious of the non-physical world. The more embedded we are in the physical, the less likely we are to reach this elevated level. We may even hear the call of God, but dismiss it as an ethereal distraction, and remain mired in the seemingly “real” construct of the much more familiar physical world.
Our tradition teaches us that there was never a human being more attuned to this phenomenon than Moses. But that was only because he made sure to hear the call when it came, recognized it for what it was, responded to it, and went to listen to God speak to him. Moses reached the ultimate level of awareness, which is why he was able to converse with God.
According to Jewish mystical teachings, there is a Moses in every generation. Perhaps this means that we must all open ourselves up to the spiritual voice within that calls out to us to break free of the oppression of material humdrum that limits us to a predetermined life — and makes us deaf to God’s voice. We all know there are truths that can never be expressed using the spoken word. Listening for those truths, and then acting on them, is possibly our greatest challenge.