The Jewish Journal, United States
March 26 2004
A Divine Call to Action
Parshat Vayikra (Leviticus 1:1-5:26)
by Rabbi Elazar Muskin
Once, on a mission to Israel, we needed a minyan for a prayer service
during the airplane flight. We were a total of six men in our group,
so we began to scan the plane for the remaining four for the
requisite 10 men.
As I went up and down the aisles, one fellow turned to me and said,
“Rabbi, make sure you get Jews for the minyan.”
I looked at him in astonishment and assured him that I had no other
plans. But why was he worried? He replied that many years ago on a
flight to Israel they also needed four men to complete a minyan. They
went around calling out “We need four for a minyan – four for a
minyan.” Before they knew it, four guys got up and joined them. They
handed the men kippot and started the service. Suddenly the newcomers
stopped the proceedings and asked what was happening. The others
explained that they needed four more men to make the minyan. The
newcomers, astounded, said, “We thought you were asking for four
Armenians, so we joined you. We are not even Jewish.”
These fellows responded to the call but misinterpreted the message.
This week’s Torah portion teaches the same lesson about the
importance of hearing the call correctly. The portion begins with the
words: “And the Eternal called unto Moses,” (Leviticus 1:1). Our
sages point out that this wording is unusual. Generally, in
Scripture, we encounter the expression that “God said to Moses” or
“God spoke to Moses.” As one rabbi noted, you don’t have to be a
biblical scholar or even barely familiar with Hebrew grammar to
appreciate that the phrase “and He called” suggests that the mind of
the person addressed is not attuned to or in communion with the mind
of the speaker. One doesn’t call a person with whom one is in
intimate conversation or rapport. One calls a man to attract his
The midrash in the Yalkut Shimoni uses this insight to provide a
beautiful homily. The midrash points out that the one who flees from
positions of honor and authority, achieves honor and authority. The
Yalkut provides many examples of great Jewish leaders who illustrate
this principle and comments that Moses represented the best example
The Yalkut tells us how Moses tried to reject the appointment to be
the savior of the Jewish people and lead them out of Egypt. God,
however, was adamant, and Moses performed admirably. At this point
the Midrash comments:
“In the end he brought them out of Egypt, parted the Red Sea, brought
down manna from heaven, provided water from the well and quail from
heaven, caused them to be surrounded with the clouds of glory and
erected for them the sanctuary. Having reached this stage, Moses
said, `What more is there for me to do?’ And he sat in retirement.
Thereupon the Holy One, Blessed be He, reproved him saying, `By your
life! There is still a task for you to perform that is even greater
than that which you have done until now – to teach my children my
laws and to instruct them how to worship Me.'”
If “Vayikra,” the call to continue his task, applied to the greatest
leader we ever had, how much more does it apply today?
Why, for example, is philanthropy for Jewish causes suffering among
the most affluent and generous of Jewish generations?
Why is higher education in Jewish studies absent among the most
educated and cultured in Jewish history?
Why is commitment to a Jewish homeland missing after only one
generation past the Holocaust?
At a similar juncture in Jewish history, the great sage Hillel asked,
“If I am not for myself, who will be for me?” That question
challenges us today to go back to work, “Vayikra,” to achieve a
positive response to God’s call.
Elazar Muskin is rabbi of Young Israel of Century City.