Friday, March 19, 2010

a calling that transcends words

I feel bad for Parshas VaYikra, which has the double portion of bad luck of falling just before Pesach when our attention is focused more on the upcoming chag than on the parsha, and being filled with technical details that would be hard to follow on any week. A few simple points...

The parsha and the sefer opens with a calling, “VaYikra el Moshe m’Ohel Moed,” the word “vayikra” noticeable being spelled with a small letter aleph, opening the door to derush galore. Rashi explains the call consisted of a voice which emanated from the Ohel Moed and was heard by Moshe alone, signaling to him that it was time to approach and immerse in learning a new sugya.

What was this little voice heard only by Moshe? I don’t think that Rashi means to say that Moshe had extra sensitive hearing. If there was a voice, why could it not be heard by all, and if there wasn’t a voice, than what is Rashi referring to?

The Ma’or vaShemesh explains that language suffers limitations. Words are great for describing the concrete, physical world, but as we get into the abstract, words fail us. Sometimes a single glance by a husband to a wife or vice versa can communicate what a thousand words cannot. Communication from Hashem required a mind like only Moshe had in order to absorb ideas directly, without the medium of language as a barrier. Moshe “heard” what no words could make clear to other listeners. The small “aleph” of VaYikra hints to the insignificance of language when communicating on this level.

What does this mean for us? I believe the Piecezna says that the mystical concept of Moshe’s neshoma being found in each dor applies not only to the tzadikim, but to each of us – there is a little bit of Moshe Rabeinu within you and me. Whatever we understand our calling to be, there is no denying that it first expresses itself as a feeling, an intuition, and only then (and only sometimes) can it be converted into words and language that can be made sense of by others. Even those Rishonim who see positive value in the philosophical justification of belief do not mean that reason is the basis for belief; they simply mean that there is a kiyum mitzvah in being able to translate what we know to be true into language that can be appreciated by others. Certainly there are truths that we each hold dear that cannot be encapsulated in words without great difficulty.

The calling that each of us hears is unique; it is heard by no one else. What springs to mind is the gemara’s story (Ta’anis 21) of Ilfa and R’ Yochanan, who were both desperately poor and finally decided together that they needed to leave yeshiva. They packed their bag and set out on their way. Eventually they paused to rest under a bridge. While resting R’ Yochanan heard the voices of angels plotting to kill himself and Ilfa for having abandoned yeshiva. Turning to Ilfa, his comrade, R’ Yochanan asked if too heard the voices. Ilfa replied that he did not. Realizing that the message was meant for him alone, R’ Yochanan returned to the yeshiva and eventually became the great R’ Yochanan, Rosh haYeshiva, while Ilfa went on his way to engage in business while still maintaining his devotion to learning. Ilfa was not deaf, and was no less capable a talmid chacham than R’ Yochanan, but he did not hear the same voices that R’ Yochanan did; his calling was of a different nature. In his introduction, the Margoliyas haYam proves that Ilfa was indeed a giant in Torah learning, albeit not a Rosh Yeshiva. The decisions and choices that lead a person to be either a R’ Yochanan or an Ilfa are worth discussing with others, but at the end of the day every decision is personal, as our ears are often privy to a message and calling that we alone hear and which is meant for no other.


  1. Excellent.
    You have to wonder about all the gedolim that did not participate in the discussions that were crystalized in Talmud Bavli and Yerushalmi, like Reb Chiya bar Zarnuki and Reb Shimon ben Yehotzadak in Sanhedrin 26. What could they have added? I suppose their exclusion was fated by the will of Hashem as to how the halacha should develop. But we know they are out there from the fact that our mesora on Tanach is punkt farkert from almost every gemara in Shas.

  2. Perfect. I though of that story before I saw you'd written it!