Parashat Vayikra

The Fine Distinction Between Loving and Casual Relationships

The small aleph in the opening word of Vayikra alerts us to the subtle but significant differences between intentional, loving relationships with God, and accidental, casual ones.

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Rashi seems to feel that the calling of Moses by God indicates a purposefulness, a kind of preparation, a readying or ordering of the upcoming interaction before the actual interaction takes place. This is seen in contradistinction to the relationship that God has with the non-Jewish prophet Balaam, in which God, without any preparation, bumps into Balaam accidentally.

This distinction between a meeting with Moses that God prepares for, or prefaces, with a call, which is characterized as a loving relationship, as opposed to a chance meeting with Balaam, which is called tameh or impure, is interesting. The way that 'loving' is set up as being in opposition to 'impure' needs elucidation, especially in view of the fact that issues of purity and impurity--tumah ve'tahara--are central to Leviticus.

In fact, all of this prefigures, in a fascinating way, some of the major concerns of the entire Book of Leviticus--the drawing of distinctions between pure and impure, permitted and prohibited. Leviticus, more than the other books of the Bible, is concerned with the creation of a world of ritual, with clear demarcations of who is meant to do or not do what, and where and when and with whom they are meant to do or not do it.

An entire set of distinctions and separations is marked out in Vayikra, distinguishing between the priest and the Israelite, the Temple and the rest of the world, the Kosher as opposed to the forbidden, the permitted as opposed to prohibited, the holy and the profane, thereby imposing an order on what is perceived as a world of chaos and disorder. These are the concerns of Vayikra.

It is therefore appropriate that the very mode of communicating these concerns--God’s talking to Moses at the beginning of the book--is itself presented as something delineated, set apart, by a call. The use of the word tameh--impure--for God’s chance meetings with Balaam is telling. That which happens by chance, rather than in a pre-determined framework, is impure.

Use of the Word "Loving"

The use of the word ‘loving’ by Rashi to describe this preparatory call is incredibly suggestive. It means that a love relationship, for Rashi, is one that demands preparation, planning, prefacing. Such a relationship is tahor--pure. The opposite, a casual, accidental relationship, is tameh--impure.

This parallels precisely the overarching concerns of Vayikra. The purity of God’s love relationship with Moses, as opposed to the impurity in God’s casual relationship with Balaam, is the result of preparation and specificity. God does not speak generally, to whomever will listen, but, rather, specifically to Moses, whom he singles out with a call. This matches the central concerns of Leviticus of separating and signifying objects and interactions as pure or impure, permitted or prohibited.

Intriguingly, the difference between the two kinds of experiences--the loving, pure individuation of Moses as opposed to the casual, impure, almost accidental relationship with Balaam--is expressed by only one letter, the aleph added to the end of the word vayikar--“and He happened upon”--that turns it into Vayikra--“and He called.”

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Rabbi Shimon Felix

Rabbi Shimon Felix is the Israel Director of the Bronfman Youth Fellowships in Israel. He lives with his family in Jerusalem, and has taught in a wide variety of educational frameworks in Israel and abroad.