This week’s portion, Vayikra, opens with a phrase translated as “And the Lord called to Moses.” The call to a prophet such as Moses summons him to a task, a vocation, a calling, that is not freely chosen, a task that the true prophet shrinks from because he feels, and is, inadequate to it. The task takes over the life of the prophet and elevates him. But it is also a source of despair.
There can be a summons in our lives that has the character of a call, a summons to tasks that have weight and intensity beyond what is normal in daily life. One call that most of us will experience is the call from someone one loves to help him or her struggle with a mortal illness and face the prospect of death. I received such a call four years ago.
A discussion in the Midrash on the nature of the prophetic call centers around the issue of receptivity: to whom does God reveal Himself? What are the different responses to a call? (Jonah, for example, fled.) Is the person called to the task uniquely suited to it? This last question produces what is, to my mind, the most surprising and penetrating discussion. In Leviticus Rabbah, Rabbi Eleazar has God say to Moses prior to the revelation on Sinai, “If you won’t come up the mountain, no one else will come up.” In the next section, Rabbi Tanhuma is quoted as teaching that Moses, after seeing the offerings of gold and jewels brought by the people for the construction of the tabernacle, was sad and said to God, “They have all brought their freewill offerings and I have brought nothing,” and that God responded. “My speaking with you means more to Me than anything else.”
I believe the redactor of Leviticus Rabbah, by juxtaposing these midrashim, is inducing us to understand that what Moses brought to the meeting with God on Sinai was his receptivity, his readiness to hear, to be spoken to. His receptivity was needed to draw God’s acts at the Sea of Reeds and on Sinai and in the Tent of Meeting out of potential and into realization. The extraordinary theological point being made here, as I understand it, is that God was dependent on the right human receptivity to evoke the interventions He made in biblical history.
A moment at the end of my own call illustrates how this issue of receptivity and its evocations arises in our own lives:
The Last Night
The last night I was alive with you, Michele,
you were in pain. I stroked you where it hurt
and phoned the hospice nurse and was instructed to
give you that other drug. You had two hours of pain
before the nurse allowed me to use morphine.
You opened up your mouth like a trustful child.
I squeezed it drop by drop between your gums and lip
and eased your pain at last, and then you slept.
And after breakfast, as I brushed your hair,
which had grown back again until your head
was covered with a fuzz of white and grey,
I pretended I was coiffing you and I
bantered on about my artistry
and how your hair was falling into place
and you laughed.
You sat up on the bed and laughed
on a morning we thought was a few weeks from the end
but was, after some kisses and a wave, the end
of the last night I was alive with you, Michele.
If someone is drifting in and out of consciousness as they die and is alone then there can be nothing conveyed by word or look or gesture, since no human receptivity is near. If the only person nearby is a nurse or other stranger, this will limit and determine what can be said or conveyed. If a spouse is present, one set of realizations will occur, and if a parent is present a different set of realizations will be drawn out of the potential of the situation. Of course, this conditioning of realization by receptivity is the case for all interactions in life.
If the person dying is as brave as Michele, and if the person with them during their last days feels, as I discovered I did, that playfulness was called for, then the experience of approaching death will include laughter. A different person might evoke tears. One is not preferable to the other; both come out of the shadow world of the vast potential of each moment. But only one possibility from all this potential can be realized, the possibility evoked by the presence of the other’s unique receptivity.
Leviticus Rabbah teaches us that, if Moses had not existed, the Torah as we know it would not and could not have come into existence. A different prophet with a different receptivity would have evoked a different Torah out of the Infinite.
But our tradition had its Moses and so, as it is said at the beginning of this week’s portion, “And the Lord called to Moses, and spoke to him out of the Tent of Meeting, saying: Speak to the children of Israel” and, in effect, give them our Torah.
David Curzon is a contributing editor of the Forward, and the author of several books, including “The View From Jacob’s Ladder: One Hundred Midrashim” (Jewish Publication Society of America, 1996).