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Moses' Unsuccessful Retirement Plans

After all the action-packed stories of Genesis and Exodus, upon reaching the Book of Leviticus the reader notices the lack of movement. The entire book is set at the foot of Mount Sinai. There in the wilderness, God calls and speaks, forming the people by unveiling a series of instructions: how to worship, how to behave, how to deal with transgression. Through a system of order and repeated ritual, the identity of Israel, as God’s holy, chosen people, is solidified.

As we read these texts it helps to be reminded of the ever-searching human heart desiring to express its encounter with divine mystery, in ancient times as much as today.

Having gathered volumes of insightful and creative commentary over the centuries, Jewish tradition can help us considerably as Christians in finding a lively connection with Leviticus. Traditional Jewish methods are painstakingly attentive to the tiny details of expression, and employ imaginative storytelling techniques (midrash) to enlarge the meaning of the text.

Take, for example, the opening verses of Leviticus (1:1-2):

The Lord called to Moses and spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting, saying: Speak to the Israelite people, and say to them...

The two verbs in verse 1 were of particular interest to the rabbinic mind. Why does the text say that the Lord called and spoke to Moses? Are both verbs really necessary? What deeper meaning can we find here in the apparent redundancy?

By the tone with which someone calls your name you can usually predict the sentiments of the message to follow! Likewise, the Rabbis interpret ‘call’ as a relational indicator preceding the message itself. God addresses Moses as an intimate, ‘like one whose hand is affectionately laid upon his son,’ [1] as one with whom there is an existing relationship forged through shared purpose and activity. The call comes not as a thunderous voice for all to hear, but from the Tent of Meeting, i.e., from close by, from a site of great significance for both Moses and God.

But how does this thought relate to the chapters of ritual material that follow? Let the rabbinic voices reply in the language of story...

Scripture describes three ‘calls’ to Moses: at the burning bush, at Mount Sinai, and now as he is to be presented with Israel’s ritual code. But, say the Rabbis, Moses repeatedly resisted God’s call. At the burning bush he had to be convinced to confront Pharaoh. Having completed this task, he tried to step down from his public role, but God called him again, this time to lead the people out of Egypt, across the Red Sea, to be fed by manna and quail, to receive the Law at Sinai, and to build the Tabernacle. Moses did all this, felt he had done enough and again tried to retire from leadership. At this God said:

I have one more great task for you: teach my people to live as a holy nation.

Thus did God call Moses to a further work, by entrusting him with a code of holiness, the Scriptures which we Christians refer to as Leviticus, and which Jewish communities also know by its Hebrew name Vayikra, ‘he called’.

The midrashic picture of Moses as a reluctant prophet-leader, gradually finding himself more and more enmeshed in God’s service, speaks volumes to the life of faith. How many of us have offered a tentative ‘yes’ to an invitation to be involved in a parish or in a particular work of the church, only to look back years later and see how it was the gateway to so much more - perhaps a lifetime of discipleship! Similarly, we can think of people who, in their twilight years, were called by God to make their greatest contribution of service to society. From here, there are many thoughts we could share from our experience of ‘God’s call’, in its blessings and challenges.

And all this from a single verse of Scripture, creatively interpreted by way of time-honored Jewish approaches to the sacred text. •

1. Leviticus Rabbah, 1, 15

Sources: Friedman & Simon, eds., Midrash Rabbah: Leviticus (London: Soncino, 1983); Munk, The Call of the Torah (New York: Mesorah, 1992); Schorsch, Canon Without Closure (New York: Avi, 2007). Scripture: NJPS

© Teresa Pirola, 2012. Reproduction for no-commercial use permitted with acknowledgement of website.


Light of Torah is a grassroots ministry arising from the Catholic community, encouraging Christians to reflect on Torah with the help of Jewish insights. More...

The reflection above refers to Parashat Vayikra, the Torah portion read for the coming Sabbath in the Jewish liturgical cycle. Shabbat shalom.

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