As we make the transition from the second book, Exodus, to the third book, Leviticus, the Torah shifts from describing the construction of the Mishkan (portable tabernacle) to describing its operations. At the end of the book of Exodus, Moses was in charge of the Mishkan, transmitting God’s architectural instructions and ensuring that the structure was built “in accordance with all that God commanded Moses.” Now, with the start of Leviticus, or Vayikra (Leviticus 1:1-5:26), the Mishkan becomes the domain of Aaron and the priests, who are responsible for the system of sacrificial worship. No wonder, then, that the rabbis imagine Moses standing off in the wings at the start of our portion, unsure of his role and reluctant to resume center stage until summoned by God. God’s call to Moses at the start of our portion is read by the rabbis as a lesson in the value of humility, which is surprisingly more about self-assurance than about self-effacement.
The rabbis in the midrash pick up on an apparent redundancy in the opening verse of our portion: “Adonai called to Moses and spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting” (1:1). If the Torah tells us that God “called” to Moses, why does it also have to state that God “spoke” to him? Aren’t these verbs essentially synonymous? The midrash explains that Moses was standing off to the side and thus God had to first call him over before speaking to him, saying, “For how long will you keep yourself low? The time waits but for you!” The rabbis contend that this is the same posture Moses adopted at the burning bush, when he hid his face from God; as per the midrash, it is also the posture he adopted at the Sea of Reeds when God said, “If you do not split the sea, no one else will,” and then again at Sinai, when God had to call Moses up the mountain. The rabbis present Moses as a model of humility, concluding that one ought to “go two or three seats lower and take your seat. Better that people should say to you: Come up, come up, and not say to you: Go down, go down.” They compare Moses to Hillel, who was also famous for his self-effacement, arguing that it is better to underestimate oneself than to err on the side of self-aggrandizement.
And yet the midrash suggests that as Moses stands outside the Mishkan with his head bent and his hands in his proverbial pockets, God has grown somewhat exasperated with him: “For how long will you keep yourself low?” This does not seem to be the humility that God desires. The rabbis explain that Moses was reluctant to come forward because he was uncertain as to what he could contribute. He has watched as the Israelites donated gold and precious stones to the Mishkan, and he doubts what he can add. “Everyone has brought their voluntary offerings to the Mishkan, and I have brought nothing.” (Midrash Leviticus Rabbah 1:6) God, seeing Moses’s despondence, said to him, “As you live, your speech is more beloved to me than all.” Moses thinks he has nothing to offer, but God assures him that his eloquence is valued most highly. He is like the mouse named Frederick in Leo Leonni’s picture book, whose gift is not the corn and nuts and wheat and straw that all the other mice gather for the winter, but the beautiful poem about blue periwinkles and red poppies which he composes to sing to the other field mice once the days have grown gray and dark.
Moses, who has always doubted his powers of speech, is perhaps being once again reminded that his gifts are not just a reflection of his own innate talents, but of what God has instilled in him: “Who gives a person speech? Who makes one dumb or deaf, seeing or blind? Is it not I, Adonai?” (Exodus 4:11). If Moses denigrates himself too much, he risks denying and depriving the others of his God-given gifts. After all, it is the very same Hillel—famous for his humility—who would arrive at the festival of the water-drawing on Sukkot and say, “If I’m here, everyone is here”. Hillel realized that if he, in spite of his humility, could share his gifts with the world, then surely everyone else could as well. We are not meant to lay low and downplay our talents, but to use them to enrich those around us – like Frederick, who responds to the other mice’s plaudits—“Frederick, you are a poet!”—by blushing, taking a bow, and saying shyly, “I know it.”
Like Adam and Eve, every human being is created in God’s image and furnished with God-given gifts. If we can learn neither to flaunt nor to suppress those gifts, we will internalize the message of the book of Leviticus, namely that sacrificial worship — like all religious worship — is about giving the best of ourselves and, in so doing, drawing closer to God.