July 23, 2024
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Calling a Leader, a Kohen and a Queen

Our parasha begins: “וַיִּקְרָ֖א אֶל־משֶׁ֑ה” “And [Hashem] called to Moshe.” Usually we read that Hashem “spoke” to Moshe. When did we see Hashem calling to Moshe? It was at the burning bush (Shemot 3:4). There the Torah uses the word “Vayikra.” It was also there that Moshe engages in a conversation with Hashem about sending someone else on the mission to Egypt.

This conversation is problematic.

How can Moshe doubt the wisdom of Hashem in choosing who to send on a mission? If Hashem asks something of you, you do not ask questions, you just do. Yet, Moshe asked and initially refused. We are told that it was because of this interaction that Moshe lost the right to be the progenitor of kohanim and would instead remain a Levite. It is not, however, explained why Moshe’s request that another be sent should result in Moshe losing the priesthood.

I came across a dvar Torah that explained that Moshe was not refusing to go and take Bnei Yisrael out of Egypt. Rather, in asking Hashem to “send who [You] would send,” (Exodus 4:13), Moshe was requesting that Hashem dispatch the ultimate redeemer. Moshe was asking that there not be any intermediate or progressive redemptions. Moshe wanted the immediate redemption to not simply be a redemption from Egyptian servitude; rather Moshe wanted this redemption to establish Hashem’s reign throughout the world. Moshe was the first to declare that he wants Moshiach now. So why should this noble request cause Moshe to lose the right to be the first of, and the forefather of, kohanim?

A kohen, whether examining a person for leprosy, or accepting a korban, must deal with the situation before him and not first try to solve the root problem. Put out the fire before trying to determine why the fires keep breaking out. Moshe’s plea for the ultimate salvation, although praiseworthy, was not at that moment the most important thing. The most important item on the agenda was ending the Egyptian servitude. Moshe’s perfectionist nature made him an outstanding Torah scholar and the perfect person to grasp the Torah and bring it down from heaven. Yet, that same perfectionism made him the inappropriate person to minister to a people’s immediate needs. It made him inappropriate to be the kohen.

The burning bush incident was the event that proved, not to Hashem but to Moshe, that he should not be the kohen gadol. Thereafter Moshe lovingly accepted that Aharon would have that job. Therefore, it is appropriate that at the outset of the book, traditionally called Torat Kohanim, dealing primarily with the kohanim’s duties, that we are given a hint or reminder of why Moshe lost the kehuna. The small aleph in the word “Vayikra” records the loss of the priestly caste. At the same time the small aleph notes that Moshe accepted that determination without complaint. The letter aleph also begins the word “ani,” which in English is the personal pronoun “I.” Moshe reduced his ego just as the aleph is reduced. The smaller aleph is a true testament to Moshe’s greatness. Of course, the letter aleph also begins the name Aharon.

The more common explanation for the small aleph is Moshe’s modesty. The word “yikra,” “to call,” has a connotation of endearment. The speaker is calling to a close friend or beloved. Moshe did not want his closeness to Hashem publicized. Moshe therefore asked to use the word (וַיִּקָּ֥ר) “vayikar,” “to happen upon,” to record how Hashem spoke to him. Hashem, however rejected the proposal. Hashem explained that the “vayikar” is how He speaks to prophets of other nations. Rashi gives the example of Bilam in particular (Bamidbar 23:4). That word, “vayikar,” does not reflect the direct and intimate communication Moshe experienced. As a compromise, Hashem allowed Moshe to write the aleph that ends the word “vayikra” smaller than the rest of its letters.

In thinking about the words Vayikra and Vayikar, I am prompted to think of the difference between Mordechai and Esther. Vayikra denotes a close connection while Vayikar suggests a casual relationship. Mordechai had a close connection to Judaism. Indeed, to Haman, Mordechai embodied Judaism. When the crisis arose Mordechai donned sackcloth and ashes and resumed his spot at the king’s gate. Of this Esther heard. What is surprising is that although she heard of Mordechai’s behavior, she had no knowledge of the decree against the Jews. When Mordechai told her she needed to approach the king for her people, she shied away. Only Mordechai’s prodding forced her to do her duty. Only the threat of her own annihilation moved her to do the right thing. Esther’s relationship to Judaism had become casual.

In and of itself Esther’s estrangement would be troubling. It is particularly troubling because Esther was raised in Mordechai’s home. Indeed, some commentaries say that she was Mordechai’s wife. Despite this strong Jewish background, Esther, albeit for a short time, fell away from her people. This near tragedy is a warning for our present age.

Even if a person comes from the most religious of homes, and has the best of education, forces may play upon them that will separate them from their people and Hashem. The difference between the casual and the concrete, Vayikra and Vayikar, is only an aleph. An aleph has the smallest numerical value and makes no sound on its own. The smallest of efforts is all that is needed at times to keep someone connected to their people and to Hashem. We have no excuse for not making that effort.

One essential element of Purim is the idea of unity. It was unity in distress, a unified appeal to Hashem, that saved the Jews in the ancient Persian Empire. Today, if we are unified, if we make that smallest of efforts toward our fellow Jew, if we send each other sincere “words of peace and truth” (Esther 9:30), we can prevent a break and also heal a break. We can add that aleph and turn Vayikar into Vayikra.

Of course, in Hebrew the name Esther also begins with an aleph.


William S.J. Fraenkel received a Bachelor of Arts in Religion and a law degree from NYU, and served as a board member and officer of several Orthodox shuls. The opinions expressed in this dvar Torah are solely his own.

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