Communicating with the Divine

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By Rabbi Shlomo Riskin

Parshat Vayikra

The opening words of this third book of the Bible, the Book of Leviticus, tells us that G-d first called to Moses and then communicated to him a specific message concerning the sacrificial offerings of the sanctuary. Why this double language of “calling” first and then “speaking” afterward? Why not cut to the chase: “And the Lord spoke to Moses from the Tent of Meeting”?


The Talmudic sage Rabbi Musia Rabbah in the Tractate of Yoma explains that the Bible is giving us a lesson in good manners: Before someone commands another to do something, he must first ask permission to give the order. He even suggests that before someone begins speaking to another, one must ascertain that the person wishes to hear what he has to say. With great beauty, the rabbis suggest even G-d Himself follows these laws of etiquette when addressing Moses, asking his permission before speaking to or commanding him.

The Ramban takes a completely opposite view, limiting this double language of addressing to the sanctuary specifically: “This [seemingly superfluous language of first calling and then speaking] is not used elsewhere [where G-d is addressing Moses]; it is only used here because Moses would not otherwise have been permitted to enter the Tent of Meeting, would not otherwise have been permitted to be in such close proximity to the place where the Almighty was to be found.” From this second perspective, it is Moses who must first be summoned by G-d and receive divine permission before he dare enter the sacred Tent of Meeting of the exalted Holy of Holies.

This latter interpretation seems closest to the biblical text, since the very last verses in the Book of Exodus specifically tell us that whenever a cloud covered the sanctuary, Moses was prevented from entering the Tent of Meeting and communicating with the divine. Hence, the Book of Leviticus opens with G-d summoning Moses into the Tent of Meeting, apparently signaling the departure of the cloud and the divine permission for Moses to hear G-d’s words.

This scenario helps us understand G-d’s relationship — and lack thereof — with the Israelites in general and with Moses in particular. You may recall that the initial commandment to erect a sanctuary was in order for the divine presence to dwell in the midst of the Israelites; such a close identity between the divine and the Israelites on earth would signal the period of redemption. This would have been a fitting conclusion to the exodus from Egypt.

Tragically, Israel then sins with the golden calf and G-d immediately informs them that “I cannot go up in your midst because you are a stiff-necked nation, lest I destroy you on the way.” Only if the Israelites are worthy can G-d dwell in their midst. If they forego their true vocation as a “sacred nation and a kingdom of priest-teachers” while G-d is in such close proximity to them, then this G-d of truth will have to punish and even destroy them. He will therefore now keep his distance from them, retaining his “place,” as it were, in the supernal, transcendent realms, and sending his “angel-messenger” to lead them in their battles to conquer the promised land.

As a physical symbol of the concealment — or partial absence — of the divine (hester panim), Moses takes the Tent of Meeting and removes its central position in the Israelite encampment to a distance of 2,000 cubits away. He then remonstrates with G-d, arguing that the Almighty had promised to show his love by means of his divine name, to reveal to him his divine attributes, and to accept Israel as his special nation. In other words, according to the Rashbam, Moses argues that he, G-d — and not a messenger — must reveal his divine ways and lead Israel.

G-d then responds that indeed “My face will lead, I, Myself and not an angel-messenger, and ‘I shall bring you [Moses, but not the nation] to your ultimate resting place.’” Moses is not satisfied, and argues that G-d himself must lead not only Moses but also the nation! Otherwise, he says, “do not take us out of this desert.” Finally, G-d agrees that although he cannot be in the midst of the nation, he can and will lead them, stepping in whenever necessary to make certain that Israel will never disappear and will eventually return to its homeland.

G-d may not be completely manifest as the G-d of love in every historical experience of our people, and will not yet teach the world ethical monotheism. Israel remains a “work-in-progress,” with G-d behind a cloud and “incommunicado.” Our nation, albeit imperfect, still serves as a witness that the G-d of love and compassion exists, and orchestrates historical redemption through Israel. G-d is “incorporated,” incorporealized, in Israel, the people and the land.

What G-d leaves behind even when he is in a cloud are the two newly chiseled tablets of stone — his divine Torah with the human input of the Oral Law — as well as his 13 “ways” or attributes. And when individuals internalize these attributes — imbue their hearts, minds and souls with love, compassion, kindness, grace and peace — they cause G-d to become manifest, enabling them to communicate with G-d “face to face” like Moses. 

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is the chief rabbi of Efrat.

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