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Peter J. Rubinstein
God just happened upon him (Parashat Vayikra)

Peter J. Rubinstein  |  March 15, 2013

There are unusually powerful moments when I’m confounded as to what to say. In some ways, it was best said in the letter you received by e-mail on Wednesday of this week informing you of the decision that I’ve made. But the wonderful part of being a Jew is that secrets, even when one doesn’t know what to say, are often revealed to us when we read and study Torah.

So when I tried to think of what this moment would bring forth, my attention was naturally and necessarily drawn to Parashat Vayikra, the portion for this Shabbat and the first section of the Book of Leviticus—in fact the book of the Torah with which children traditionally began their Jewish education. More specifically, I was drawn to and fixed on the very first word of this portion, which as you know becomes both the name of the parashah and of the book in Hebrew.

When you open your commentary, you will notice an anomaly in the writing of the very first word, the name of this portion, vayikra. The last letter of that word, the alef, is written smaller than almost all the other letters in the Torah. There are very few letters of different size, whether larger or smaller. So as reasonable people, we as logical rational Jews, we would imagine that there is a definitive explanation as to why: there should be something explained by our history, something explained in the Torah itself, for why this alef is written smaller.

But the fact is that there is none. And it is exactly such a lacuna, an explanation, that is an open invitation to every rabbi throughout history, every scholar, and in fact, every Jew, to explain why that letter, the alef at the end of vayikra, is that way. And we explain it through our own personal insights in order to find our own meaning in it.

But here’s one explanation of one commentator I favor. It says that when God told Moses to write the Torah, to use the word vayikra,  “and he called,” Moses didn’t want to use that last letter alef, for it seemed that “and he called” gave Moses too much importance.

Moses thought, how could he possibly write that God called to him in particular. How could he imagine himself of such import that God would single him out for either a mission or a co-mission; who was he, Moses thought, after all. To his mind, he was merely a man of no greater merit or lesser merit than any other Israelite.

Moses would have preferred to have written vayikar, leaving the alef out entirely, which would mean that God just happened upon him. Vayikar, as was used in the story of Balak and Balaam, when God just happened upon him.

And so it was in Moses’ mind just a coincidence that God happened upon him and rather than deliberately singling him out for a call. In other words, God just came across Moses, he didn’t go out of his way to appear to him. And so Moses protested. And yet in spite of his protestations, God commanded Moses to write that word vayikra with the alef,  “and he called.”

So listen, you don’t argue with God about such things. Moses acceded and put the alef at the end of the word as God had commanded him. But as a personal affirmation of what he, Moses, really believed, he wrote it smaller, as if to argue that he was of no greater merit requiring God’s attention. He was just a man who by virtue of being there at the right time and in the right place was lucky enough to have been found.

I’m taken by that lovely explanation, which for me reflects my own personal wonder that I am actually here doing what I do, as a rabbi, in this extraordinarily remarkable congregation, and now speaking to you after the decision that we sent around.

For those of you who have actually listened to my sermons, especially on the High Holidays, you know that my becoming a rabbi was not by any plan, not by any intention; that my want at that time was to do medical research in a cloistered laboratory far away from people. And in fact I assumed that to be not only my inclination, but my talent, I thought.

But something happened along the way. And to my way of thinking, God happened upon me in a series of remarkable coincidences that have led to this place now. Having discovered it, I found a passion of which I was not aware in my younger years. I was given the opportunity to use abilities that emerged along the way, and to be with people, and a people I have come in time to love over due course because you and I have shared a common love for our faith, for this synagogue, for our values, and for our traditions.

Tonight is not a farewell, but a reiteration that my graduation—as I choose to call it, not retirement—is now upon me. That I believe there is another chapter in me. That my will is to spend more time, and to spend it differently, with my family. As you have heard and I again reiterate, Kerry and I always plan to be part of this community. But just to do it in a different way.

I trust you understand and now know that we will spend the next fifteen months on the path that we have nobly set for ourselves, nothing less than courageously creating and recreating this synagogue as a model of the core values of our faith. That we will continue to stake our claim for the betterment of all Jewry in this city and this nation and around the world. That we will take our future seriously.

And we will continue to do as we have already done: to venture forth bringing our dreams, our vision, and our passion to a Jewish community and to a society that not only needs us, but awaits us. I promise you that we are capable of doing this as we have already done, and we in fact are capable of so much more.

So this I would pray, in simple words: May God be with us on our way, and may I continue to be blessed with the woman who did the aliyah tonight, who is equally if not more responsible for everything I am as a man and as a rabbi, and who herself demonstrates the utmost of humility in the very core of her being.

We await the time we can sit among you, but for now, we have work to do. So let’s get on with it. Amen.

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