It was a beautiful sunny day; I was at least able to acknowledge that. The roadside from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem was wild with yellow, purple and green. I wanted to stop the car, get out and go into the fields to pick flowers, just like I used to do when I was a kid. Why bother? Who cares? In the fog of bitterness, even the flowers became just another problem. How exactly am I going to stop in the middle of the highway?
Then a song came on the radio, an Israeli classic, “talk to me with flowers” – DABER ELAI B’FRACHIM
It got me. I had to smile, and then find a bus stop, and park, and pick, and fill the passenger seat with a bunch of bright yellow sunshines. (They are called Hartziot in Hebrew, and they emerge en masse for spring and I don’t know what they are called in English – have never seen them in the U.S.)
The song helped. The flowers helped. A few days later and I’m still in a bit of a funk, but I’m not that angry anymore. The voice helped. The voice that sort of called out (or in) to me (from me?) and said: listen to the lyrics of this song, and stop the car, and go pick flowers before the sun sets and the highways ends, and quit whining.
When, later that night, I open the third Book of Moses and turn to its very first word – there’s, I think, that voice again. It’s calling out to Moses from inside the fog that is clogging up the holy tabernacle, calling out from within crisis: psss. Over here…
Exodus ended with a crisis: the tent of meeting is completed, but a cloud of smoke is filling it up so that Moses cannot enter. The cloud – God’s presence – does not depart, and the book ends with a cliff hanger.
And then –
“God called to Moses and spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting.”(Vayikra/Leviticus 1:1)
In Hebrew, the word “called” is Va’yikra – literally, ‘and He called’. This verb gives this third Biblical Book its name. In Latin it’s Leviticus – named for its secondary title – the Book of The Laws of the Levites. Essentially, this is a book about the details of devotion. I prefer to call it the Book of The Call.
The Book of the Call opens with the solution to the crisis: The Call. From within the mysterious cloud/fog/God a call is heard, followed by actual words. Moses writes it all down, and what is being dictated is poetry – not in its strict sense. The Book of the Call is mostly laws and regulations about a worship system that no longer exists, but that’s only one way of reading it. The more imaginative, mythic and mystical ways of reading Va’yikra are less interested in the historical descriptions of bygone sacrifices and altars and are much more intrigued by what all that has to say to our personal possibilities for making meaning, creating intimacy, and finding inner peace.
Is it arrogant of me to say that I equate the song on the radio to the Call of God from within the tent? God knows I’m no Moses. But perhaps wake up calls come in many different shapes, and a song on the radio is just one, random, variation.
And whether it is or is not a ‘legitimate’ way of deciphering this, or any other act in which we are called to action by inner or other voices within or without – what really matters to me is the ability to respond – the activation of response-ability.
What really matters is how we react once called, how we make room for the still small voice that is sometimes a burning bush and sometimes a bunch of flowers.
Yesterday, at the Mandel Institute, a small group gathered to read a new book about Jewish theology. “Sacred Attunement’, by Michael Fishbane is a challenging read, but already in its first pages I am captivated – here too is The Call. The Hebrew verb ‘Vayikra’ does not only mean ‘to call out’ – it also means ‘to read’.
Fishbane, one of the world’s leading Judaic scholars, calls this act of heeding the call/reading the words – ‘attunement’:
‘…the first task of theology is to provide a perspective that would place one firmly upon the earth and set forth a framework for the entirety of existence – such as humans may know it in their life-realms. We are not one kind of person when we walk on the earth feeling hunger or love, and then an entirely different sort when we listen to music or talk about theology and religious experience. We are always one and the same; we are always mortal creatures living in this world. So how might we proceed? – Perhaps by paying closer attention to the concrete realities of our lives, as we experience them on earth; and by rethinking how we constitute our daily existence through thought or action, and how we fill in or explain unsettling events that occur all around. (p. 13)
The blue vase on my desk is brimming with yellow flowers tonight, and the third book begins.