There is a lot that is floating around in this room tonight. Happiness at seeing old friends. Our singing still resonating in the walls. All of our shared breath and individual breath. The room is imbued with that certain Shabbos je ne sais quoi. And of course there is always a text hovering in the ether too - usually the week's Torah portion, waiting patiently for us to call to it and address it.
But tonight there are two texts in the room. One is the weekly Torah portion, Vayikra, our first foray into the Book of Leviticus. And the other is the Book of Esther - the story that forms the basis of the holiday of Purim which falls this week.
Usually Vayikra and Esther don't happen so close together. Leviticus typically hits just a couple weeks before Pesach. But we're in a Hebrew leap year, which gave us an extra month. So Purim got postponed and suddenly here we are, with both these texts floating here, full of expectation.
Now these stories have nothing obvious to do with each other. Vayikra, at the top of Leviticus, takes place during the Wandering in the Desert. It introduces us to the system of sacrifices, of offerings, that were the ancient technology to give form and effect to our gratitude and our contrition. Vayikra leads us into a deep study about being good with God, and maintaining the spiritual health of a community.
The Book of Esther is as different as can be. It is a kind of novella - a side story written in the diaspora; a tale of personal and communal heroism set in ancient Persia. It combines hints of Scheherazade with elements of suspense thriller. It's got palace intrigues, mortal danger and a beauty contest. Everything you could want in vacation reading.
These texts don't seem to speak to each other at all.
But each of them has a famous quirk. And their quirks are oddly in dialogue.
The Book of Esther, notoriously, does not mention God in any fashion. It is a Jewish story, but a secular story. The closest it gets to referencing a spiritual dimension is when Esther asks the Jews to fast as she prepares to go to the king and expose the villain, Haman. She doesn't even tell them to pray, which would have at least implied God. There is also a veer in a God-direction when Mordecai tries to goad Esther into confronting the King. He says to her, "Perhaps it is for this very reason that you came to be queen." His words suggests that providence is somehow involved, there is some sort of destiny, but he doesn't quite name God as the author of it.
So where, if anywhere, is God in this story? The Book of Esther is full of disguises and revelations. There are palace guards secretly plotting the king's murder, and they are exposed by Mordecai. Mordecai refuses to bow to Haman, which reveals something new about the Jews. Haman's response reveals something dark about him. And most famously, Esther suppresses her Jewishness so that she can reveal it, just once, at just the right moment. Commentators love to associate her Persian name Esther with the Hebrew word hester, meaning "secret."
For the mystics, the absence of explicit God reference in the Book of Esther is an open invitation to project God into the story. For them, looking at this tale of secrets and disguises, it seems obvious that God is not missing but hiding. Not lurking in palace corridors like Haman. But suffused into every element of the story. All the heroism is miraculous, even though it is the kind of miracle effected by the hand of humans. In other heroic stories when God is mentioned, God ends up becoming a mere character in the story, finite and separate from other actors. In the Book of Esther, God, by not being mentioned, is both nowhere and everywhere, much like we experience God in our lives. God is not a character in the story, but is the story itself.
The quirk in Vayikra has a relationship to the quirk in Esther. It is also somewhat about Divine hide-and-seek. The first sentence of the portion, opening the Book of Leviticus, is vayikra el Moshe. "[He] called to Moshe." This is followed by vay'daber Adonai eylav me'ohel mo'ed - "and God spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting."
It's very funny phrasing. "He called to Moshe." You would legitimately expect the book to open, "God called to Moshe." But instead, God is omitted; implied perhaps, but, for the duration of those three words, grammatically invisible.
Perhaps this a reflection of how we, as humans, experience the Divine. It starts with a sensation of being called, that you might not recognize as God. It might be deep in your gut, an intuition, a flash of insight. You might be experiencing Divinity in such a non-dual way that naming it "God" would undo it.
So maybe here in the text, the call happens, and it seems authorless, everywhere and nowhere at once. It takes Moshe a few beats to separate out the experience into Moshe and God. Maybe Esther was similarly called, but never drew that boundary, leaving articulation of God unnecessary.
So besides this grammatical quirk at the opening of Vayikra, where God disappears for a beat, there's also an orthographic quirk. Looking in the Torah scroll, the final letter of the word vayikra, the aleph, is miniaturized and raised up to look almost like a superscript, like what we would see indicating a footnote. This tiny aleph is called the aleph ze'ira.
What is behind it? Scholarship would suggest that perhaps the final aleph of the word vayikra had been inadvertently dropped in one manuscript. A later scribe restored it but made it small to indicate that it was a fix. In the way that archaeological restoration is done nowadays so that you can tell what is old and what is restored.
But scholarly scribal explanations are not relevant in our rabbinic tradition, nor are they as much fun. So what do the rabbis of history say? Some have taken the aleph zeira as a reference to children, since it is the old custom for children to being learning to read Torah with the Book of Leviticus. The 13th Century rabbi known as Ba'al Haturim suggests that the tiny aleph was a compromise made on Mt. Sinai between God, who wanted to say vayikra - "He called" - and Moshe who wanted to say vayiker - "it happened." In other words, God wanted credit for calling out to Moshe. Moshe wanted to describe it as he experienced it: "it so happened." The difference between the two words? Just the aleph. So they split the difference by cutting its size in half.
Another midrash suggests that the aleph is an indicator of the famous "still, small voice" thatElijah experiences in communing with God. The idea here is that God did not call to Moshe in a booming voice, but in silence.
Another thought goes like this. The aleph is making itself less obvious so that inthe word vayikra, "he called," we also see the word vayikar, "he held dear," from the root yakar, meaning "precious." That in this moment of being called, Moshe wasn't just being summoned as a servant. He was being held as a beloved. The small size of the aleph zeira is an invitation to look at the word and see two words, and absorb the love that is part of every experience of the Divine.
So what's the total experience, the full cluster of meaning we can get out of this oddly spelled subjectless verb that launches Leviticus? Maybe that when we are called by God, we might not experience God as separate at all; that a knowing comes from within us; that it might be born of silence; that it is like a happening as much as it is like a call. And, when this happening happens, we feel in that moment, in that flash, how dear we are to God. We perceive the preciousness of everything. And in that moment God is All and God is Nothing. Revealed and Hidden. Fullness, Emptiness and Love.
Now wouldn't that be a good place to stop?
But wait, there's more. One last thing. This word vayikar, to hold precious: with different vowels we find it at a climactic moment elsewhere in the Bible. Where? You guessed it. The Book of Esther. When against all odds the Jews are saved, the megillah says layehudim haytah orah v'simchah v'sason vikar. "The Jews had light and gladness and joy and yekar." Yekar - honor, dignity, the quality of being held dear.
It is at this word yekar that our two texts are linked. The moment the Jews are rescued through Esther's heroism, and the moment Moshe is called to speak to God.
Through the linkage point of this word, meaning flows from one story to the other. We can now imagine, at the beginning of Leviticus, Moshe's joy and the preciousness with which he's held. How the moment of establishing our religion in the desert is like the salvation of a whole people from danger. And we can imagine, in Esther's story, the divine call that is never articulated. We can imagine Esther saying seamlessly inside the inspiration, inside the call, inside the happening, inside the preciousness. It moves her, it moves through her.
So that's the story of these two texts. And that's how far I got. I was wondering how I would bring this back to some element that I began with, or to a handy takeaway for you. And as I sat puzzling, I received a call of my own. It was our 14-year old, almost 15-year old, who had the day off of school. He came in and asked if I wanted to watch a movie with him. And I've learned that if your almost 15-year old wants to do something with you, instead of being in his room with the door shut, you say yes. So we sat down and watched a movie this afternoon. This movie was yet another text of the day; something with mutants. We watched. It was a happening. It was precious. I was grateful. I'd been impatient with him earlier, and so I felt contrite too. This time together was my offering. As we sat, I was reminded that the divine visits us in many guises, wearing many masks.
I am grateful to Rabbi Laura Duhan Kaplan who has made me look so differently at Leviticus.