Listening for God

A D’var Torah for Parshat Vayikra by Aron Wander

“Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing…” –Arundhati Roy, “Confronting Empire”

“Hashem called to Moses and spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting, saying…” (Leviticus 1:1)

The first verse of Vayikra, so full of talking – called (vayikra), spoke (vayedaber), saying (leymor) – gestures towards the inadequacy of language. Why does God need to “speak” to Moses if God had already “called” him? Does God call to us in something other than words, or are we so caught up in the world that God must call out to us again and again in order to get our attention?

According to the Ma’or VaShemesh, the 19th-century Chasidic master R’ Kalonymus Kalman Epstein z”l, the redundancy hints at the fact that Moses is able to perceive the supernal divine worlds that exist beyond speech. While the Israelites can only perceive the world as it already is – defined by language, concepts, and preconceptions – Moses has access to a divine oneness and possibility that precedes articulation. 

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Throughout their time in the desert, the Israelites are bound by the limits of what they already know. 

“We remember the fish that we used to eat free in Egypt, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic,” they cry out. “Now our gullets are shriveled. There is nothing at all! Nothing but this manna to look to!” (Numbers 11:6) 

The complaint makes little sense – how could one moan about having “nothing” but divine sustenance falling from the sky? Perhaps what the Israelite are really protesting is the suggestion that such nourishment might be unaccompanied by oppression or domination. Surely there is no world in which pleasure – manna, melons, fish – is attained without corresponding suffering, and a God who offers such plentitude must be even crueler than Pharoah. 

Only Moses, suggests the Ma’or VaShemesh, can imagine a world beyond that which he has experienced. To truly hear God, accordingly, is to recognize that the world as we know it is contingent: it does not have to be as it is. “God Is Change,” states Earthseed, the religion of Octavia Butler’s novel The Parable of the Sower. (Or, as the early Chasidic masters might have framed it, all change is contained within God.) With the recognition that the world could be different comes the possibility of critique: no hierarchy or power need be taken for granted. No state, economic system, or nation is of ultimate value, and all are liable to become idolatrous. 

And yet, we so often make the mistake of taking those and other human constructs as natural, or perhaps even divinely ordained. It may be the greatest success of capitalism, nationalism, racism, and other destructive and oppressive systems and ideologies that they have convinced us there are no alternatives to them. “Imagination,” writes adrienne maree-brown in Emergent Strategy, “is one of the spoils of colonization.” 

Find more commentaries on Vayikra.

It is often crisis that both demonstrates the inadequacies of our world and demands its restructuring. Nearly a year ago, at the onset of the pandemic, Indian activist and author Arundhati Roy wrote, “[C]oronavirus has made the mighty kneel and brought the world to a halt like nothing else could… [I]n the midst of this terrible despair, it offers us a chance to rethink the doomsday machine we have built for ourselves. Nothing could be worse than a return to normality.” America’s massive death toll has highlighted the inhumanity and ludicrousness of our profit-driven healthcare system, the brutal cruelty of the Republican Party, and the racism and exploitation inherent in our economy. It is tempting to see America’s fragile, halting rollout of the vaccine as “a return to normality.” The fundamental instability and unsustainability of our economic and political systems predated Covid, though, and the vaccine will not roll back their decay. 

Commenting on the opening of Vayikra, the Alter Rebbe, R’ Schneur Zalman of Liadi z”l (the founder of Chabad Chasidism, who died in 1812), writes that there is a piece of Moses within each of us and that we, too, can reach the divine presence that lies beyond language and boundary. If there is hope, it is that in our broken, not-yet-doomed world, any one of us may yet hear the voice of God, which lies neither in fire nor whirlwind but in the endless redemption of possibility. 

Aron Wander is a second-year rabbinical student at Hebrew College and an alumnus of the T’ruah summer fellowship, where he worked at Faith in New York, a faith-based organizing network. His writing can be found at