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Leviticus The Importance of “Calling”

By Rabbi Marc Baker

We live in a busy, noisy world of multimedia overload, fast-paced online communication and expectations of increased personal and professional productivity. Technology and social media have revolutionized how we communicate and what we expect of one another.

rabbi marc baker
Rabbi Marc Baker

I have grown accustomed to short, pithy email and text exchanges with colleagues and friends that no longer include small talk, framing or even salutations. These are certainly efficient and can even be playful and fun. However, I can’t help wondering about the degree to which this fast-paced form of digital interaction over time erodes our ability to effectively communicate, connect and empathize with one another.

In my work as head of school, I am always amazed when I receive an email from a parent, student or colleague containing important concerns or criticism that does not even begin with a respectful greeting, let alone well-wishes. I admit that when I am spoken (or written) to like that, in a moment when I need to be most open to hearing (or reading) someone’s words, I find myself less interested, less open and less compassionate. I feel like the relationship is transactional, as if this person does not care about or value me even in a cursory way, but rather just wants or demands something from me. To use Martin Buber’s terms, I feel like an It, not a Thou.

This brings me to the first word of this week’s Torah portion, and of the third of the Torah’s five books (after which the book is named): Vayikra. While the English translation is Leviticus (referring to the Levites, the Priests, who are main characters of the book), the Hebrew name Vayikrameans “And He called”: “And God called to Moses and He spoke to him from the tent of meeting, saying …” What follows are sets of instructions about sacrifices that Moses is to transmit to the priests.

Through their close reading and search for meaning in every word, the classical rabbinic readers over the ages learn from this word, vayikra—Hecalled — a life lesson about speaking, listening, the nature of human interaction and the quality of interpersonal relationships.

Why does the Torah not just say, “And God spoke to Moses, saying …”? What does the seemingly superfluous call to Moses, before the “speaking,” add to the narrative? The medieval commentator Rashi explains that “calling” is an expression of affection, a term of endearment. (With others, for whom God has less affection, Rashi adds, God simply starts talking.)

The Talmud in Tractate Yoma offers a teaching about interpersonal ethics: “Why does God call Moses before speaking with him? The Torah is teaching a basic ethical principle: one should not speak to his fellow person without calling to him first.” In his commentary “Torah Temimah,” Rabbi Baruch ha-levi Epstein (1860-1941) explains this teaching in terms that I find profoundly relevant to our lives: “The Talmud wants to teach,” he writes, “that a person should not start talking to someone suddenly.”

What, exactly, is the problem with sudden speech?

In the Talmud, this is a lesson for the speaker. To simply start talking to someone without first calling their name, without a framing or an introduction or even a salutation, is akin to barging into the person’s space with our words. Or, after Rashi, we might understand it as signaling a lack of affection, a disinterest in genuine connection, a lack of respect. On the contrary, when we “call someone” in a respectful or meaningful way, in a small but significant way we can elevate even our online interactions from the transactional to the relational.

But the “Torah Temimah” takes his interpretation a step further, and teaches us something about the nature of listening as well. He adds, “The reason (for not speaking suddenly) is so the listener can prepare himself to hear.” It is not easy to listen to or to hear one another, especially in a world where the noise and, as Allison Fine puts it in her book “Matternes,” “the churn” are louder and more exhausting than ever. When words feel transactional, when it feels like people are speaking to me only because they want or even demand something from me, it can be hard to pay full attention, to be open, to really hear what the other is saying, let alone to be open to and compassionate about the deeper meanings, feelings and experiences that precede and underlie their words.

Calling, framing and opening with words of respect and affection have the power to humanize and elevate our interactions and our relationships. They serve both as signs of respect on the part of the speaker, and invitations to the listener to prepare and to be open to hear and receive the words that follow.

It is worth considering in which contexts and relationships we might each need to do — or receive — more “calling.” If we are to learn from God’s example and take these rabbinic teachings to heart, what could be the impact of more and better calling, on our relationships, on the quality of our speech and, ultimately, on our abilities to hear and be heard?

Rabbi Marc Baker is head of school at Gann Academy in Waltham, Mass., and scholar in residence of the Cynthia and Leon Shulman Acharai Leadership Program at Combined Jewish Philanthropies.

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