When God is calling, will you be ready to stop and listen

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Leviticus 1:1-5:26

I Samuel 15:2-34

“When did you receive your call?” The question was asked regularly and sincerely by the fellow clergy — mostly Protestants and Catholics — in my chaplain school class as I began my training as a chaplain candidate in the U.S. Navy.

It took me a very long time before I knew how to formulate a response, for it was not a question or worldview that I was familiar with, nor even comfortable with. God “calling” someone to be a rabbi? We Jews do not generally look at our lives or our rabbis through that particular lens.

I would answer my Navy colleagues in the language I knew: I would tell them that I had struggled for some time — I was drawn to the rabbinate, but having been educated for years as a scientist, I did not want to let that training go. I did not necessarily see one journey as having any connection to the other.

Then, I would explain, I grew. I examined my strengths and my desires as my Jewish journey unfolded. I finally made the choice that I wanted to be a rabbi.

But, I would ask, “What is a call?” We Jews don’t talk that talk.

Or do we? This week we begin the third book of the Torah, Vayikra (Leviticus). The book, and our parshah, gets its name from the first word: “Vayikra — God called to Moses and spoke to him from the tent of meeting.” Moses received a call. God spoke to him.

Yet, this is an unusual call. We generally view a call as being external, coming from the outside. The phone rings as someone tries to contact us, and we answer it. Our parent or child or significant other calls from some part of the house; we go there to see what is needed. Someone else is trying to reach us.

The call Moses received was completely different. Despite the translation I gave above, the Hebrew word “Vayikra” has no apparent subject in the original Hebrew. Very precisely, the verse says, “It — something — called to Moses, and God spoke to him … “

The Kedushat Levi, the 18th-century Chassidic master in Berditchov, suggests that it was Moses’ humble desire that called him to come close to God, to want to hear God’s word. It was not an external call, but an internal one. It was Moses’ self-awareness that allowed him to hear God.

A Jewish calling is not simply about God trying to reach us — that comes, but later. A call like Moses’ comes from us being in tune with ourselves to hear God’s message.

Hearing or approaching God is a very personal act. It is born of internal exploration and a true desire to know ourselves and thereby be close to God. This intimate personal relationship is emphasized in the second verse of the parshah. “Speak to the children of Israel and say to them, when a person [‘adam’] presents an offering of cattle to Adonai … ” A midrash (Vaykira Rabbah 2:7) notes that the language used for “person” is the less common Hebrew word “adam” rather than the common term “ish,” and teaches that the verse is an allusion to Adam HaRishon, the first human being.

Adam was as individual as one can be; he was alone in the world. The relationship he had with God was intensely personal. That is where our relationship with God begins as well. Only when we as individuals hear the cry of our souls to approach God can we hear God. Our call — like Moses’ call — is based in who we are as individuals. To hear it requires us to know ourselves.

This call, this moment of connection with God can take many forms. It can be hearing a message as complex as deciding what to do with one’s life. It could be Moses deciding he could be the one to lead the Israelites out of Egypt.

Yet, hearing God’s voice speaking directly to us does not always have to be so life-changing. It can also be a connection we feel with God when faced with tremendous beauty. It can be the love and connectedness we have when listening fully to and being completely present with another human being. The importance is to open oneself to the possibility of hearing God’s voice, for God is always there ready to speak. Are you ready to hear that call?

Rabbi Michelle Fisher is the spiritual leader of Congregation B’nai Shalom in Walnut Creek.