Leviticus opens with the phrase: “Adonai called to Moses and spoke to him.” In most other verses, we find only the phrase “Adonai spoke to Moses.” So why in this verse does God’s calling to Moses precede the speaking?
Usually, when we want to tell someone something important, we want that person’s attention. Thus God called to Moses first in order to prepare him for a forthcoming message. One midrash tells us that the calling preceded the speaking because the Torah wants to teach us derech eretz — good manners. To focus attention on those who call us requires us to bring ourselves into relationship with others.
In Exodus, Moses tried to reject the mission to speak to Pharaoh by saying he was unsuitable because of his impeded speech. The Hebrew for impeded speech is aral sefatayim, which actually means “uncircumcised in the lips.” We don’t usually think of lips as being uncircumcised. Nor do we associate the heart, the ears or the spirit as uncircumcised.
However, in biblical Hebrew, there is a figurative meaning associated with the condition of something not being circumcised. Arel, “uncircumcised,” and orlah, “state of non-circumcision,” can refer to a covering that blocks understanding, listening and feeling.
In Deuteronomy 10:16 we read: “Cut away, therefore, the thickening about your hearts (orlat levavkhem) and stiffen your necks no more.” In Jeremiah 6:10 we read: “Their ears are blocked (areilah) and they cannot listen.” Ezekiel (44: 7, 9) spoke of persons who were uncircumcised of spirit. To have an uncircumcised heart, ear or spirit meant that the person has blocked his/her mind to God’s call.
At the very beginning of Leviticus, Moses was “all ears” when God called to him. What was so important that God wanted to make sure Moses was paying attention? God wanted to disclose the commandments for the sacrifices, the offerings that would help bring people back to God. The word in Hebrew for sacrifice is korban, which comes from a root meaning near. We want to feel near God again after we have committed a sin. In Judaism, a sin is understood as creating distance between yourself and the person whom you have wronged. When you treat someone badly, you create a distance between yourself and that person.
To make amends is to close the distance created by the sin and to come near again. Hence, korban — sacrifice — is intended to bring a person near to God or to another person after a sin, which is often the result of blocking someone out of your life when a part of the body that should have been open to others was closed, or uncircumcised.
In biblical times, the smoke from the korban arising from the altar was to be a pleasing odor to God. Today our prayers for forgiveness in the synagogue and our resolve to make amends are the substitute for the sacrifices. They can be as pleasing to God as the smoke of the korban. Baal Shem Tov once said, “When wood burns, it is the smoke alone that rises upward. So it is with prayer. The sincere intention alone ascends to heaven.”
Rabbi Fred V. Davidow is the chaplain at Glendale Uptown Home. Email him at: [email protected] .