“And He called to Moses, and the Lord spoke to him out of the Tent of
Meeting.” …Leviticus 1:1
“And He called to Moses.” Rashi, the most famous of all Biblical
commentators, tells us that vayikra, He called, is a phrase indicating
affection, in this case God’s affection for Moses. It is the kind of
language the ministering angels use, as the verse in Isaiah says, v’kara
zeh el zeh and they called one to another, and said, kadosh kadosh kadosh,
Hashem tzvaot m’lo kol ha’aretz k’vodo, Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord of
Hosts, the whole world is full of His glory.
Christians often talk about someone having a “calling.” Christians will
ask me “when was I called to be a rabbi.” Jews don’t use that
language—Jews ask me “when did you decide to become a rabbi.” There is a
huge difference in world view expressed in those two different ways of
phrasing the same question.
What is meant by a calling? In an article called “Calvin and the
Christian calling” Alister McGrath talks about how secular work, even the
most mundane of tasks was something that the early Christian Reformers
came to see as having great value. As McGrath describes it “Underlying
this new attitude is the notion of the vocation or “calling.” God calls
his people, not just to faith, but to express that faith in quite definite
areas of life. Whereas monastic spirituality regarded vocation as a calling
out of the world into the desert or the monastery, Luther and Calvin
regarded vocation as a calling into the everyday world. The idea of a
calling or vocation is first and foremost about being called by God, to
serve Him within his world.”
This is a concept which is very much in keeping with Jewish values. Next
month at our Passover seders we will be retelling the story of how God led
our ancestors out of Egypt to freedom. But in a way, it was not so much
about “freedom” the way we usually think of “freedom”—freedom to sleep
late and indulge yourself—but rather freedom to serve God. In the telling
of the story of the Exodus Moses is instructed to tell Pharaoh “The Lord
God of the Hebrews has sent me to you, saying, “Let my people go, that
they may serve me in the wilderness.”
God calls us to serve him. But how is it that we hear that call?
In his commentary on vayikra, God called, Rashi further explains that the
voice of God went out and reached Moses’ ears, but the rest of the people
of Israel did NOT hear God calling to Moses. The way God calls to us is
very personal, and we have to listen to hear the call.
For Jews, the primary way that God reveals Herself to us is through the
Torah. Torah is seen as a kind of bridge between Infinite God and Finite
Man. This is why we treat the Torah with such reverence—it’s much more
than just a book, for many it IS the path to finding God.
A beautiful teaching on this is brought from the Zohar, the central work
of Kabbalah, Jewish mysticism. As I read this somewhat poetic translation
by Daniel Matt (with a few minor changes) you could substitute “God” for
“Torah” as Torah is simply the vehicle for connecting with God:
Human beings are so confused in their minds!
They do not see the way of truth in Torah
Torah calls out to them every day, in love,
but they do not want to turn their heads.
Even though I have said that Torah removes a word from her sheath,
is seen for a moment, then quickly hides away-that is certainly true-
But when she reveals herself from her sheath
and hides herself right away,
she does so only for those who know her and recognize her
The opening of the passage tells us that God calls to us, but only calls
to those who are ready to receive the call—it takes some preparation.
To what can this be compared?
To a princess,
Beautiful in every way and hidden deep within her palace.
She has one lover, unknown to anyone; he is hidden too.
Out of his love for her, this lover passes by her gate constantly,
Lifting his eyes to every side.
She knows that her lover is hovering about her gate constantly.
How is that we “hover about her gate?” For Jews, it is through studying
Torah. Not every second that we study Torah, not every moment that we
seek God, is going to be an awe-filled transcendent moment. There’s a
fair amount of hovering, of just being there, being ready.
What does she do?
She opens a little window in her hidden palace
And reveals her face to her lover,
Then swiftly withdraws, concealing herself.
No one near the princess sees or understands,
Just the lover,
And his heart and his soul and everything within him
Flows out to her.
And he knows that out of love for him
She reveals herself for that one moment
To awaken love in him.
After a lot of hovering—after a lot of preparation, a lot of studying
Torah—we get a glimpse of the treasure within. We get that transcendent
moment, the epiphany, the light bulb going off, a glimpse of the Holy One.
The Zohar uses erotic and somewhat sexist imagery—it was a male dominated
world. But I think there is a lot we can learn from the parable. To get
a glimpse of God is an amazing exciting experience that can change your
life. God calls to each of us from within the palace, in a way that each
of us alone can hear.
God calls to each of us differently because we all have different needs
and desires. To put it in the language of the parable of the princess and
the lover, we have different ideas of beauty: not just the superficial,
that some prefer a particular hair color or body shape, but people are
attracted to different kinds of personalities. There is a princess, there
is an ideal, in the Torah that is in there calling out to each of us.
Just as there are individual preferences in what we find romantic, there
are cultural differences as well. The princess that a 13th century rabbi
in Spain found incredibly erotic is not necessarily the same thing that a
woman in China would find exciting—and this explains why we have many
different religions, why we have God calling to us in so many different
There is but one palace, but there are many windows and many fair
princesses—or princes! The same concept was expressed by Rabbi Moses
Mendellsohn in the 18th century. Someone asked him how could it be that
both Christianity and Judaism can be right? He replied there is one
pasture, but there are many gates.
Why are there so many different gates to God? The Christian mystic,
Thomas Merton, taught that in every religion there is a religious content
and a religious experience. The religious experience—the transcendental
moment, the instant when God feels manifest in our lives—is the same
across all cultures. The feeling we have when we achieve what the
Buddhists call Enlightenment, what the Jews call Devekut, or cleaving to
God, the Christians might experience as the Faith that comes through
Grace, is all the same feeling. What changes from religion to religion is
the content: the way we interpret and understand those revelations from the
Divine. Merton traveled to Asia and spent a fair amount of time in
Thailand, and reported that he sometimes felt a greater connection with
some of the Buddhist monks than with some of his brothers at his Trappist
monastery in Kentucky—because he shared the experience, the essence, with
the Buddhists, while, alas, some of his brothers at the monastery only
shared the content, the window dressing.
In my younger days, I thought the ideal would be one world religion. I
looked at how much violence and how much divisiveness came from religion,
and I figured what the world needed was one religion everyone could
believe in. One big gate!
When I was working on my PhD in Business I had to take a class that
explored the relationship between business and society. This was back in
1980, so we read social commentators like Daniel Bell and Irving Kristol.
One recurrent theme was how society was falling apart because we had lost
the Protestant work ethic. The solution to me seemed obvious: we must
need a new religion! I thought most religions were pretty illogical, and
figured what we needed was a religion that was not at odds with science.
So I wrote a paper which I called “Toward a New World Religion in the Next
Period of History: an Initial Look at the Essential Elements.” I outlined
an epistemology, an ethic, and some rituals for a new religion. All I
needed was some wild-eyed guy to preach from a soapbox.
I got an A+ for a paper which I now see as full of hubris and ignorant
about religion in general, and Judaism in particular. My professor, you
see, was not a very religious person either. I later came to learn that
almost all of the things I called for in my new religion exist right
within the religion I was raised in: Judaism. And I’m sure they exist in
other religions as well. It just never occurred to me to look for answers
deeper than 6th grade Hebrew school.
I have a friend who is a Unitarian Minister, among many other things. One
of the most ethical and concerned people I have ever had the privilege to
know. When I told him I was becoming a rabbi, I think he was not
surprised that my life would turn toward a spiritual calling, but he
expressed a little disappointment perhaps that I was becoming a rabbi—he
said he thought I had a more universalistic outlook than that. He really
liked my business school paper, and thought I should do something with it.
What I have come to appreciate is that while there are universal values
that every decent person on the planet would agree with, there is no one
approach to God that we can all agree on, or indeed that makes sense.
Making one big gate to the palace for us all to go through is not the
answer. Some of us don’t live anywhere near that one gate. Many gates,
many paths toward God, does not reflect any lack of unity or cohesion in
God, chas v’shalom (God forbid!): rather it reflects that people are
different and we experience things differently.
One of the hazards of monotheism is that it can be rather intolerant.
Polytheists, people who believe in many gods, are very tolerant. I
believe in my gods, you believe in your god, what’s one or two more gods,
no problem. But if you only believe in one God it can make you somewhat
intolerant of others.
In principle, Judaism is about as a tolerant as monotheism can be. There
is a great deal of misconception about the idea of the Jews as the Chosen
People. The idea of the Chosen People is not that we are singled out for
special rewards or an easy time. We were chosen as the people God gave
the Torah to, and we were chosen for a particular task, to serve God by
bringing an awareness of God to the whole world. The Talmud brings a
teaching that other people can be chosen for other things, like the Romans
were chosen to be great builders, with all those roads and aqueducts they
Not only does Judaism teach that other people can be chosen for other
tasks, we also do not claim, and have never claimed, to have the only
possible path to God. God is God to the whole world, not just the Jews.
For example, Bilaam was a prophet who spoke with God, yet was working for
the other side. The king Balak tried to hire him to curse the Israelites,
but he couldn’t because it’s not what God instructed him.
You don’t have to be Jewish to go to olam haba, to heaven. All a non-Jew
has to do is to follow the 7 Noachide laws, laws that God told Noah, who
came before the Jews. Basically, the Noachide laws say that if you are an
ethical monotheist—a “righteous Gentile”—you also have a portion in the
world to come. For Jews, the bar is raised much higher: we have 613
commandments God has charged us to obey. This is one reason that Judaism
does not make a big deal about proselytizing, about winning converts. We
do not believe you have to be become Jewish to save your soul or to find
God. We acknowledge there are other ways. It doesn’t, by the way, mean
that we don’t think our way is the best way—it just means it’s not the
When I was younger, I tried some other gates for reaching God. For a
while I was very into Buddhism, meditation, martial arts. What I
discovered was that while there was wisdom in those traditions, ultimately
none of them was for me. I guess I have a Jewish neshama, a Jewish soul,
which needed to come in this particular gate. Which is why I am glad that
there are many different ways to approaching God. Everyone can find the
one that works for them.
Just as God called out to Moses, God is calling out to each and every one
But are you listening?