The Calling

Oasis Songs: Musings from Rav D
Friday, March 19, 2021 / 6 Nisan 5781

This past week’s horrific murders in Atlanta have shaken us all. Incidents of hatred and wanton destruction, whether inspired by religious mania or bigotry, are deeply disturbing. We are in a period of history where many minorities are feeling endangered. Jews, Blacks, women, transgender people and others all have gotten their turn. The appearance of Covid-19 in China has been used to justify older stereotypes and hatred against our Asian-American neighbors. If you have friends or acquaintances who are Asian or are part of an Asian community, I encourage you to reach out to them. When hate is leveled at some aspect of our identity, it can induce feelings of fear and evoke a sense of alienation. Your reach out can provide strength and solidarity. May God open all of our hearts.

Tonight we will mark a year of quarantine closure with a short ritual. At 6 pm, please join us on our online streaming platform. Our clergy team will gather in the Main Sanctuary as we light the Shabbat, followed by services with Rabbi Eve and Cantor Bitton.

Tomorrow, let’s give a warm welcome to Pastor Craig Brown, who will be our guest speaker in our monthly Unity Shabbat series, primarily featuring faith leaders of color from around the city. Pastor C, as he is sometimes called, ministers at St. Paul Missionary Baptist Church in North Portland. He was a college athlete and served in the military for twenty years. It was during his military service that he first felt a call to ministry, providing faith and strength to combat soldiers in an active combat zone. Pastor Brown hopes that this first visit to our synagogue might open other possibilities with his community. Please plan on attending at 9:30 tomorrow. Pastor C will begin to speak around 10:15 or 10:30 and will remain after services to meet with you on Zoom.

Summary: This week’s Oasis Songs discusses different ways we can each feel called to a course of action.

Reading Time: Four minutes

A quick Google search brings up dozens of books entitled “The Calling.” Do all these authors lack sufficient imagination to come up with a creative name for their books? Do they simply recycle a hackneyed title? Probably not.

You’d hardly be alive without experiencing a sense of calling, that inexplicable knowingness, that thing which scratches at the mind.

What is this sense of calling? Is it an emotion? An intuition? Your soul making its wishes known? The brain spinning up a thought? Is it how God speaks to us? Like many things in life, the sense of calling probably is multifaceted. Why should we restrict ourselves to one explanation?

While not all people experience a sense of calling that instructs them what to do with their lives, most of us have moments in which we feel visited by uncommon sensations. These carry their own sense of calling. For example, there is a word in Finnish, kaukokaipuu. It refers to the emotion of being homesick for a place you have never visited. Many Jews have that feeling for Israel; it may explain the strange magnetic attraction that the Western Wall or Kotel exerts on first-time visitors.

In New Guinea, meanwhile, people describe a different type of calling known as awumbuk. This describes the sudden emptiness in a home after house guests depart, an emptiness often accompanied by melancholy. There is a classic Jewish story of the family who complains to their rabbi that the house is too empty. They receive advice to first bring their goat, then their chicken inside. Eventually their tiny home seems more like a barn until they return their livestock to the yard and discover how vast their home is. The Jewish story normally ends at this point of humor. Awumbuk informs us that there might be more to the story than we first encountered. It also provides us another take on empty-nest syndrome because these New Guinea people have created a ritual to acknowledge the loss of presence so that they can then move on with their lives.

To be called in these ways might not occur every day, but these moments still have a strange pull. This week, we begin to read the book of Leviticus, so called because it outlines many religious duties of the Levitical class. Yet the Hebrew, Vayikra, means “and he called.” God called Moses. An 18th century Moroccan rabbi, Chaim ibn Attar (The “Or HaChaim”), provides an interesting perspective on this divine sense of call. First, he notes that it is confusing why the Torah bothers mentioning that God called him because the Midrash declares that God always called Moses. Second, despite that midrashic tradition, there are only three explicit instances of vayikra, of God calling Moses in this manner and then speaking to him afterwards. The first occurs at the burning bush. The second takes place at Mt. Sinai, and the third is in the beginning of Leviticus, our weekly parsha. If there is a contradiction between this midrash and the rarity of these calls, something important must occur at each of these three instances. What is it? Redirection.

We may not experience a calling every day. Instances of kaukokaipuu or awumbuk may be rare. Yet it only takes a few such heightened instances to shape our lives and to point us in a different direction than we imagined. Each of Moses’ callings, his kri’ot, refocuses his purpose. At the burning bush, he becomes a liberator and freedom fighter. We mark Passover because of that powerful moment of calling. At Sinai, his role shifts to prophet and lawgiver. Our Jewish commitment to justice and social action, to robust discussion and dialogue, begins at this moment.

Here in Leviticus, Moses becomes religious innovator, setting up the sacrificial rituals that will sustain the Jewish people up to the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE. The purpose of this ritual innovation is to empower the people to forge their own connection with God. In other words, he teaches them to reach out for this rare gift of calling. Down to this day, we Jews are encouraged to take responsibility for our spiritual lives. It is why so many Jewish rituals occur at home. The Shabbat table has replaced the sacrificial altar.

When you get a call, it doesn’t just change you. It impacts those around you.

Pastor Brown, for example, told me that in his ministry, he has been called to encourage his people and congregation to connect outward with the larger world, even if it seems uncomfortable. He has felt called to stretch his community. But, he confessed, this opportunity to join us tomorrow feels like he is being called to stretch himself.

As we mark a year of pandemic and a year of quarantine, it is difficult to imagine a more far-reaching example of calling. The entire world was forced to realign. Covid-19 has spoken. We have been redirected.

What have we heard?

Tzeitchem l’shalom, may you go in peace,

Rav D

Shabbat Table Talk

  1. When have you experienced a sense of being called?
  2. What did you do with those emotionally heightened moments? Did you let them redirect you?
  3. Hardship is a powerful teacher, and one that can point us toward new paths. Where has Covid asked you to go?

If you’d like to continue this discussion, follow this link to CNS’s Facebook page to share your own perspectives on the topics raised in this week’s Oasis Songs. Comments will be moderated as necessary.

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