For the last two weeks, we have been watching the people of Israel building the Tabernacle. This sanctuary was to accompany the Jewish people throughout their long journey in the wilderness and was to be set up in the Land of Israel when they eventually arrived there. Finally, in the very last chapter of the book of Exodus, it is finished. And then—what happens next?
Then the cloud covered the tabernacle. A thick cloud covered the newly built Sanctuary. Because of this cloud, Moshe himself was unable to enter the Sanctuary. Can you imagine? After all the effort which had gone into this building, it was covered by a cloud and seemed to be totally inaccessible and totally useless.
Of course, we all know now that it was God’s presence, not just a cloud! However, think of the moment when it first happened: how could they know exactly what this cloud was? Oh yes, I am certain that Moshe had faith, that he didn’t doubt or question God, but I am also quite sure that there were many there who were grumbling, wondering why in the world they had spent so much time building the very thing that now seemed to be so useless, so inaccessible.
We also have this choice: to recognize the presence of God, the hand of God, the voice of God—or to just see a cloud interfering with our plans, something that ‘just happened’ to us. In an amazing way, like everything in Torah, this choice is reflected by the very first word of the book – VaYikra. In the original Hebrew text, the word Vayikra has one specific feature: it’s written with a miniature aleph at the end. There are three sizes of letters in Torah – regular, oversized and miniature – and every time we see a letter of a different size, we should look for a profound explanation. So, why do we have this miniature aleph here?
Our sages have offered different explanations, but here is the one that I absolutely love. The Hebrew word “VaYikra” without the aleph would read “VaYiker,” which means, “and it happened”. There is a huge and truly ontological difference between the worldview based on Vayikra “and He called,” and the worldview based on VaYiker “and it happened”—between seeing just a cloud making the Mishkan inaccessible, and recognizing His very presence covering the Tabernacle. Our sages say that when the Red Sea split, all the seas in the world split at the same time—because the Lord always leaves us the choice to perceive His miracles as just some natural events. While we are here on this earth, everything, absolutely everything, can be seen as something that ‘just happened,’ as opposed to something that He called into being. However, faith knows that there is a little aleph beyond everything that ‘just happens’ —and it is this aleph that makes all the difference and reminds us of God’s hidden ways.
The Spiritual Topography
The book of VaYikra (Leviticus) is placed in the very center of the Torah: there are two books before, and two books after. There is so much action before Leviticus— all the wonderful events and stories of Genesis and Exodus, all the great narratives that make for such dramatic and colorful pictures in children’s Bibles. There is also some action after this book, in Numbers and in Deuteronomy, although the very tone of the stories of the last two books is completely different from the first two. However, here, in VaYikra, there is almost no narrative, and virtually no action—everything stands still here.
Rashi says: “Thirteen times in the Torah, God spoke to Moses and Aaron together, and corresponding to them were thirteen other occasions where God spoke only to Moses.” This is one of those times. Here God speaks to Moses only. I imagine when God first began speaking here, that Moses was confused, perplexed, even dismayed for a time. It’s not that he had never heard His voice before this book – by the time we enter this book, Moses is already a great and accomplished leader who knows very well the voice of the Lord and has done amazing things for Him and with Him. He had just led the people out of Egypt, received the Ten Commandments, completed building the Tabernacle, and I suppose, after all these activities, he was ready to just go on. I’m sure he expected the Lord to keep giving him some practical guidance and instructions: “Lord, what do you want me to do next? What do you want me to build for you? Where do you want us to go?” But there is no going or building in VaYikra. Instead, the Lord speaks of sacrifice.
Do you know that in Hebrew, the root karav ((קדב), from which the words lehakreev, to sacrifice, and korban, sacrifice, are formed, is the very same root that forms the word lehitkarev, to come near, to draw near, to come closer. Yes, it is that simple: if you want lehitkarev leElohim—to come closer to God—you have to learn lehakreev, to sacrifice. The entire book of Leviticus (VaYikra) is about that. And only when we learn to sacrifice, does the real closeness, the true intimacy with God, come.
We have another reminder of God’s hidden ways on this Shabbat. This Shabbat is again one of those Special Shabbatot that are referred to by a special name: “Shabbat Zachor”. Shabbat Zachor (“Sabbath [of] remembrance שבת זכור) is the Shabbat immediately preceding Purim. On this Shabbat, at the end of the Torah Portion, we read Deuteronomy 25:17-19: “Remember what Amalek did to you on the way when you went out of Egypt…“
Deuteronomy 25:17 describes an incident in Exodus 17:8-16, just after the children of Israel crossed the sea. On the third day of their travelling in the wilderness, the army of Amalek attacked them. Miraculously, the Jewish people defeated the Amalekites; however, what does that have to do with Purim, that happened almost a thousand years later, and what must we remember?
And here we are back again to that little aleph – to God’s hidden ways. Parashat Zachor is read on the Shabbat before Purim because the story of Purim actually began hundreds of years before Esther, with Saul and Agag. This was a hidden beginning: Haman was a descendent of Agag and a descendant of Amalek. Like his fathers, he was an enemy of the Jews and therefore wanted to entirely wipe out the Jewish nation. Mordecai had to destroy Agag’s descendant, Haman, because King Saul did not obey God and destroy Agag. Next time, we will talk more about Purim and its hidden beginning.
 Ex. 40:35
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Join the conversation (2 comments)
Absolutely beautiful. I will never think of this passage the same. Amazing how much deeper meaning can be accessed through the Hebrew language. Thank you for this teaching.
Yes! Not random chance, but purpose and intent must be our lens to see the world. It’s not “just a cloud”. Such an important lesson. Thank you Julia! I need to be constantly reminded of this!