Once, on a mission to Israel, we needed a minyan for a prayer service during the airplane flight. We were a total of six men in our group, so we began to scan the plane for the remaining four for the requisite 10 men.
As I went up and down the aisles, one fellow turned to me and said, “Rabbi, make sure you get Jews for the minyan.” I looked at him in astonishment and assured him that I didn’t have any other plans. But why was he worried? He replied that many years ago on a flight to Israel, they also needed four men to complete a minyan. They went around calling out, “We need four for a minyan—four for a minyan.” Before they knew it, four guys got up and joined them. They handed the men kippot and started the service. Suddenly the newcomers stopped the proceedings and asked what was happening. The others explained that they needed four more men to make the minyan. The newcomers, astounded, said, “We thought you were asking for four Armenians, so we joined you. We are not even Jewish.”
These fellows responded to the call but misinterpreted the message. This week’s Torah portion teaches the same lesson about the importance of hearing the call correctly. The portion begins with the words, “And the Eternal called unto Moses,” (Leviticus 1:1). Our sages point out that this wording is unusual. Generally, in Scripture, we encounter the expression that “God said to Moses,” or “God spoke to Moses.” As one rabbi noted, you don’t have to be a Biblical scholar or even barely familiar with Hebrew grammar to appreciate that the phrase “and He called” suggests that the mind of the person addressed is not attuned to or in communion with the mind of the speaker. One doesn’t call a person with whom one is in intimate conversation or rapport. One calls a man to attract his attention.
The midrash in the Yalkut Shimoni uses this insight to provide a beautiful homily. The midrash points out that the one, who flees from positions of honor and authority, achieves honor and authority. The Yalkut provides many examples of great Jewish leaders who illustrate this principle and comments that Moses represented the best example of all.
The Yalkut tells us how Moses tried to reject the appointment to be the savior of the Jewish people and lead them out of Egypt. God, however, was adamant, and Moses performed admirably. At this point the midrash comments:
“In the end he brought them out of Egypt, parted the Red Sea, brought down Manna from heaven, provided water from the well and quail from heaven, and caused them to be surrounded with the clouds of glory, and erected for them the sanctuary. Having reached this stage, Moses said, ‘What more is there for me to do?’ And he sat in retirement. Thereupon the Holy One, Blessed be He, reproved him saying, ‘By your life! There is still a task for you to perform that is even greater than that which you have done until now; to teach my children my laws and to instruct them how to worship Me.’ ”
If “Vayikra,” the call to continue his task, applied to the greatest leader we ever had, how much more does it apply today?
Why, for example, is philanthropy for Jewish causes suffering among the most affluent and generous of Jewish generations?
Why is higher education in Jewish studies absent among the most educated and cultured in Jewish history?
Why is commitment to a Jewish homeland missing after only one generation past the Holocaust?
At a similar juncture in Jewish history, the great sage Hillel asked, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?” That question challenges us today to go back to work, “Vayikra,” to achieve a positive response to God’s call.
This column originally appeared in 2004.
Elazar Muskin is senior rabbi of Young Israel of Century City.
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