I remember my mother speaking to one of her Christian Clergy friends, who was very interested in her becoming a rabbi. The Minister asked her: “When did you hear the calling?” It was a question that my mother didn’t have an answer to.
As rabbis we’re very used to being asked why we became rabbis, or when did we know we wanted to be rabbis, but the idea that one should ‘hear a calling’, the voice of God telling you to become a member of the clergy, seems quite a Christian concept.
And yet, reading this week’s parasha of Vayikra, we may wonder why that’s the case. After all, this reading, which is the first of the book of Leviticus, opens with God calling to Moses, in quite an unusual formulation. Literally, the book opens by saying:
“And He called to Moses, and God spoke to him from the tent of meeting, saying:”
The Torah opens the entire book by telling us that someone called to Moses, but it isn’t until the second part of the verse that we learn that the call is from God. Many commentators have discussed this odd syntax – why does the verse uses both “called” and “spoke? Are those the same thing? Why is God’s name left out of the first phrase?
The Talmud in tractate Yoma (4b), asks the same question: “Why does the verse mention calling before speaking? The Torah is teaching etiquette: A person should not say anything to another unless they call first.” As I’ve learnt from my children, you have to get someone’s attention before you start giving them instructions. First make sure they are listening, then you can begin to really speak to them. God speaks to us the way human beings need to be spoken to.
But it seems to me there is a deeper lesson here, in that when God wants to speak to us, even today, it isn’t a single process where we hear words spoken from a divine mouth. First there is a calling, a wake-up moment when we realise that we need to act. That is the Vayikra, the calling. The details come later; that is the Vayedaber, the speaking.
In my own life, I heard the ‘call’ to be a rabbi when I discovered my essays on the philosophy of religion were slowly morphing into sermons on the Talmud. I didn’t know then that I would study at JTS, or work in Stoke Newington Shul, or even that I would be part of the Masorti movement – but the call rang in my heart, and I knew that I had to respond.
Sometimes, when the call comes, we don’t even know that it is God that is calling. Maybe you see a homeless person on the street and feel you have to act? Or see a news report about the climate crisis? Sometimes, only in retrospect, can we say that that was a divine call. The call comes first, God sometimes comes later.
It is then our duty as Jews to be good listeners, to pay attention to what the world, what our hearts, are telling us to do. We should attune ourselves to hear the call of the divine, the voice of God telling us to act and make the world a better, kinder place.
Shema Yisrael – Hear O Israel – is central to our prayer. May we be a people that truly hear, and truly listen.
Rabbi Roni Tabick is rabbi of New Stoke Newington Shul