Sign In Forgot Password

Sermon for March 16, 2018

02/16/2018 02:19:58 PM


Rabbi Robinson

Parashat Vayikra

March 16, 2018

It was deep in the winter—so goes the Hasidic story—and the rebbe was walking along the snowy path when he heard a cry: “help, help!” from just off the road. He went and found a wagon overturned next to a mule and driver, who was trying to right it. “Come and help me!” cried the frantic man by the wagon. The rebbe came and tried to lift, but it was no use; his limbs wouldn’t let him lift the wagon back on its wheels. With a resigned sigh he said, “It’s no use. It cannot be lifted.” “No,” said the driver with a fierce look in his eye, “you’re just giving up; you’re not really willing to help.” Stunned, the rebbe looked at the man, and tried one last time, whereupon they lifted the wagon back on its wheels and he sent the driver on his way.

I have to tell you, this story has been rattling around in my head the last week; while walking around New York City, while studying with colleagues, while watching teens and kids walk out of schools this week to protest and mark the period of sheloshim since Parkland. There’s something about this story, about the passionate, frantic calling out of the wagon driver and the rebbe’s two responses, first his ambivalence, then his stronger reaction, that is really speaking to me right now. I don’t know why. Maybe it’s that ongoing sense of feeling overwhelmed; the daily, hourly, minute-by-minute reminders of how broken and sad and cruel our world can be. But maybe it’s something else as well.

What does it mean to call or be called to? A call is an attempt to get our attention, sometimes out of anxiety, sometimes out of affection, sometimes both. Regardless, the idea of a call is that it’s something that we have trouble tuning out. Like a baby’s cry, a real call grabs our attention and won’t let go, we have to respond. And a call is intentional; it’s not merely a crying out, but something that pierces the heart.

This week our Torah presents us with a call as well: מוֹעֵד מֵאֹהֶל אֵלָיו יְהוָֹה   יְדַבֵּר וַ -מֹשֶׁה אֶל וַיִּקְרָא. God called to Moses and spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting.

Rashi reminds us that the word Vayikra i וַיִּקְרָא s used with intention here. Why else would the text present two words for the same thing: Vayikra and vayidaber: God called and God spoke. You only need one, and God doesn’t waste ink, so what gives? Well, as Rashi explains, all oral communications of the Eternal to Moses were preceded by a call. We might think this is merely to get Moses’ attention, but we’re also told that it is a way of expressing affection, the mode used by the ministering angels when addressing each other, as it is said (Isaiah 6:3) “And one called unto another [and said, Holy, holy, holy is the God of hosts]”, the same verses in the kedusha when we go up on our tiptoes. Sure, the words that will follow are meant to be transmitted to Israel, which is a pretty important task. But there’s a personal connection, a kind of loving and insistent grabbing of Moses’ elbow, as it were. A moment of trust, where God knows Moses will listen.

We shouldn’t take that for granted, by the way. Why assume just because God speaks that people listen? Even through fire, through flame, God can be like our wagon driver, calling for help but no one is listening. But Moses will listen. Moses will hear, whether there’s fire or not.

The real question isn’t whether Moses will hear the call. The real question is whether we will hear the call. And don’t tell me there isn’t a call. The call is all around us; it’s deafening. The truth of the matter is that we’re being called to by God all the time. Perhaps we don’t think of it that way or realize it, but there it is: in the paper as we read about human suffering, directly in front of us when we confront it in teens so afraid and angry they stage a walkout, and the poor person made so humble they can barely ask for their God-given right to dignity, and so many others. God calls to us, and we have do decide how we’re going to respond. We can read the paper and feel bad for a minute about the Rohingya or the kid who got shot or whoever and then feel good that we felt bad, but that doesn’t seem like enough, does it? That seems like the rebbe’s first reaction, pushing against the cart without really making an effort. What would it mean, then, for us to respond more fully, less ambivalently, more wholly? Does that mean giving our money? Our time? Our sweat equity? Does that mean looking for opportunities to step up rather than opportunities to opt out? Does it mean using our prayer time on Friday nights not just to enjoy the music and relax and unwind but to spend some real time within our souls challenging ourselves about what we should be doing? The word to pray in Hebrew, after all, means to judge one’s self.

I ask this as an honest question, and a question I struggle with every day. Sometimes I give to the homeless person, and sometimes I don’t. Sometimes I actively look for those moments to make a difference in the community, and sometimes it seems like it’s too much, the wagon won’t right. Sometimes I can hear that voice, with affection and urgency in equal measure, asking me whether I’m doing enough. I especially hear that voice when I look at my family, at my son, and wonder what he thinks of the work I do. And I think of something my teacher Rabbi Shai Held reminds me of again and again: what’s the point of studying Torah if it doesn’t lead you to be a better person? What’s the point of ANYTHING we do as Jews if it’s merely a social or academic exercise? How does that help us answer the call, answer God’s call.

God calls to us out of love, and we must answer the call with all our might. We simply must. Because here’s the thing: what does the call in Vayikra lead to? It leads to forgiveness through the sacrifices, and it leads to holiness in the holiness code. The same is true for us: hearing the call and answering the call leads to repairing the fabric of the universe around us, and leads to holiness, to whole-ness, for ourselves and those around us. May we recognize the call, so we may fulfill the words of Torah: Na’aseh v’nishmah: we will do, as we have heard. Amen. 


Wed, December 6 2023 23 Kislev 5784