When I was in seventh grade, my English teacher made me diagram sentences, not unlike most seventh-graders in America's public schools. Truth be told, I would have rather pulled knitting needles through my cheeks than learn the rudiments of English grammar, but Mrs. McGee insisted that one day it would come in handy. And so we labored away, underlining the subject once, the verb twice and the object three times. This is the way a typical simple sentence is structured.
Curious, then, the structure of the very first verse of the third book of the Torah, Vayikra: "(He) called (vayikra) to Moses, and God spoke (vayedabber) to him from out of the Tent of Meeting, saying (laymor)...."
If I follow Mrs. McGee's schematic, I would have three words underlined twice. There are three verbs in this sentence, and each verb says the same thing: He called, He spoke and He said. Why does the Torah need three different verbs to indicate that God communicated orally to Moses? One would not have been sufficient? What gives?
Rashi, the most famous of our medieval biblical exegetes, quotes a beautiful Midrash to explain the unusual grammatical construct.
"Calling," Rashi writes, "preceded every statement, every saying and every command. It is lashon hibbah, the language of love."
Even though this is the only time in the Torah that God calls out, Rashi tells us that the calling is implied in every communication from God to Moses. Before there is the spoken word, before there is the commanding voice, there is the revelation of presence. And every time the Torah tells us that God spoke, we are to know that God's love preceded and infused every communication.
This is something Martin Buber taught us when he spoke of the I-You relationship. In the I-You moment, borders and boundaries that define and distinguish our individual selves are stripped away to reveal a unity of being. In my youth, I thought Buber was obtuse and pedantic, and was convinced that not even Buber understood what he meant. The truth is, he is obtuse, but I didn't have enough life experience to appreciate what Buber meant when he said that the only thing that was revealed at Sinai was God's presence. I couldn't understand: No content to revelation? No positive and negative Commandments? No religious structure? If none of that was there at Sinai, then why observe anything of Jewish tradition?
Now that I have a few years under my belt, I think I understand. The reason to observe is because there must be a response to the encounter with God's love. First there is the experience of love, Rashi tells us, and then there is command, there is structure, there is religion. The content of the relationship flows naturally out of the encounter.
We learn a great deal about love from the Hebrew language, from the word hibbah. If we change one vowel, and one letter, hibbah, love, becomes hovah, which means "obligation." There is an intrinsic connection between the dance of love and a mutually binding sense of obligation to be with, to give to, to take care of the one we love. Mitzvot, therefore, are our response to God's calling out in love. When we feel that love, when we are aware of God's presence, the only possible response is to do mitzvot. The mitzvot are the way in which we call back to God in love. They are not a burden imposed upon us from above, or beyond, or outside of us, but the dance of love of two equals locked in a passionate embrace. Mitzvot give shape and form and substance to the yearning for divine union that springs from the deepest parts of us.
And so, as we begin reading a new book of the Torah, a book that is consumed with the seemingly unending detail of the Temple service, with the types of sacrifices and the foundation of the priestly religious life, before our eyes glaze over from what may seem like atavistic and primitive ritual, let us not forget what all this detail is ultimately about: hearing the call of God's love. This is a call that does not come in collect. In a modern idiom, what God is saying is, "I love you. Can you hear me now?"
Perry Netter is rabbi of Temple Beth Am in Los Angeles and author of "Divorce Is a Mitzvah: A Practical Guide to Finding Wholeness and Holiness When Your Marriage Dies" (Jewish Lights, 2002). He can be reached at email@example.com.