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God Calls Us By Name #717

03/11/2022 12:49:30 PM


Rabbi Irwin Huberman

The Rabbi is not available this Shabbat. His e-sermon will continue next week. In its place, here is his sermon from 2020 on this week’s parashah.

Parashah Vayikra
“And God called out to Moses — and spoke to him.” (Leviticus 1:1)
God Calls Us By name

It was Rosh Hashanah, about 15 years ago, when — as is the custom when we return the Torah to the ark — I began walking up and down our sanctuary aisles wishing everyone a Shannah Tovah.

It was usual for a rabbi, prior to Covid — especially new rabbis — to attempt to shake as many hands as possible, looking each person in the eye and wishing them a happy new year.

I was halfway down the left side of the sanctuary when one of our seniors, refusing to let go of my hand, pulled me in and whispered in my ear, “Do you even know my name?”

“Yes, I do,” I replied.

“Then, what is it?” she challenged.

“You’re Gussie Haber.”

“Good, rabbi,” Gussie said. “Thank you for remembering my name. Because if you don’t know my name, you don’t know me at all.”

That scene repeated itself every year during the High Holidays, until Gussie’s passing in 2015.

It is hard to remember everyone’s name, and thank God I remembered her’s, but on that day, she reminded me that none of us is just a person occupying a seat. More importantly, she reinforced on that day, that each of us matters.

I have a close relative, Julie, whose son’s wedding in Florida I recently attended by Zoom. And I observed something interesting as she interacted with guests.

Every person she knew, she greeted by name.

“It’s so good to see you, Tova. You look so good tonight. Tova, thank you so much for coming to our simcha.” 

As she greeted everyone numerous times, so personally, I noticed the smiles on their faces. She does the same when she speaks to someone on the phone. She makes everyone feel special — by name.

For our names remind us that we are unique, that we are not invisible, that we are individuals, and that our lives — like our names — mean something.

Dale Carnegie once noted: “The sweetest sound to anyone's ears is the sound of their own name.”

This leads us to this week’s Torah portion — known in English as Leviticus, referred to in Hebrew as Vayikra — “And God called out.”

For centuries, rabbis have debated why God, at this point in time, chose to get Moses’ attention using this phrase, which is rarely found in the Torah.

Usually, when God speaks, words like “God said” are used. Within the Bible, variations of the term “God said” or “Thus said God” appear about 1,700 times.

Why the change to the word Vayikra — called out? And from here, our ancient commentators take over.

They note that to date in the Torah, we have been talking mainly about concepts — Ten Commandments, laws, mitzvoth, equality, fairness, freedom.

But now it is time for action.

How many times have we wanted to attract someone’s attention asking them to perform a task, or just wanting to talk with them

First — especially within a crowd — we call them by name. We establish a bond, and then we get down to business.

Indeed, the way that each of us has a name, each of us has a task — a role or a challenge we are meant to face in this world. If you’re looking for ultimate peace, quiet and tranquility in your life and within Judaism, I’m not sure you’ll find it

Rather, we are a religion which calls each of us into action — as we frequently encounter, by design, a myriad of obstacles and challenges.

Each day, as the Torah inspires us to consider, we are presented with choices between the blessings and curses. Which do we choose? We choose blessings, we choose life.

The Talmud reminds us that none of us can be God. No one I know can survive as a burning bush. But we can emulate how God acts in the Torah.

God provides clothing to Adam and Eve. Therefore, it’s up to each of us to clothe those who are “naked.” God comforts Abraham after his circumcision. Therefore, we are reminded to visit and lift up those who are spiritually or physically suffering.

God calls out to Moses with this unique word — Vayikra — gets his attention, and begins a series of instructions on how to put concepts into action.

For the next few weeks, we will be reading about the sacrifices that the Israelites were asked to perform. The word used is “korban,” which means doing something that brings us “closer” to God.

So, this week’s Torah portion beckons us to come closer.

Each of us at this unique time — especially during this time of Covid — can hear a variety of calls, if we just open our ears.

There is a wakeup call, a comfort call, a condolence call, a healing call, a call to grow, a call to reshape ourselves. And in return, we press “reply” with sacrifices of the heart — compassion, kindness and patience that mirror the ancient model expressing thanks, praise, guilt and regret.

And even this time of the year, as we enter the Passover season, were refer to the Pesach offering — the bone on the Seder plate — reminding us that God passed over our homes on that storied night.

But it all begins, says the Torah, by focusing on each individual and their uniqueness — calling each other by name.

How many of us these days feels invisible?

We are no longer citizens, we are consumers. Search engines entice us with computer-generated offers. Often organizations slap on our names to the top of news releases, offers and solicitations.

But does anyone really know our names, and who we really are?

The late song writer, Jim Croce, reminded us through one of his most memorable compositions that — “I’ve got a name.” Yes, we do.

God sets the example at the beginning of this week’s Torah portion, by calling Moses by name, and then commands him to begin instituting a national system of kindness, compassion, care and sacrifice.

Our names, our souls, our actions illuminate this earth, as we remind each other that each of us is an individual — a source of light, worthy of consideration.

A small thing, maybe, but so important.

We are more than “hey” when we greet. We are more than statistics captured and commodified by an algorithm.

Perhaps we could all use a little less “reply to all” and more true personal connections that begin by calling each other by name.

Every year, around Rosh Hashanah, I recall that little ritual with Gussie Haber. I still smile as I pass by her seat

For Gussie Haber had a name. And I remember it well.

Shabbat shalom, v’kol tuv.

Rabbi Irwin Huberman


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