We are not insignificant, we are impossibly significant

March 19th, 2021

Geometry, Leviticus, and God’s plan

Only five times a year, do we start a new book of the Torah, and this week is one of those times. This week we read Parashat Vayikra, the beginning of the book of Leviticus.

And one of the things that speaks, pardon the pun, to me, and the other commentators, is the first word itself: vayikra, ויקרא, which comes from the first verse:

וַיִּקְרָ֖א אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֑ה וַיְדַבֵּ֤ר ה׳ אֵלָ֔יו מֵאֹ֥הֶל מוֹעֵ֖ד לֵאמֹֽר׃
The LORD called to Moses and spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting, saying:

Leviticus 1:1

This word can be divided into three parts: the root of the word, the tense, and the vav at the beginning. Forgive me for the brief detour into grammar. The root of the word, קרא, means to call out or to recite. It is the same word we use to describe reading the Torah, קריאת התורה, kriyat haTorah, or the recitation of the Shema, קריאת שמה, kriyat shema. It carries with it a sense of “out loud.”

Out loud, is important to us, in part, because of the halakhic implications, the need to actually verbalize these things so that they can be heard. It also signifies that this is impacting the universe around us. It is out loud, out into the universe.

This word, without the vav, is in the future tense, “will call.” This form is generally in the masculine grammatical form, but in this case, is referring to God, so, not exactly masculine. In any case, an interesting thing that happens with that vav is twofold.

First, the vav, as a word, appends an “and” to the sentence. In this case, it might read, “and God will call.” But that is not what it says, nor means. The vav, and our second interesting thing, is what is called a vav-consecutive or vav hahipuch. What this special vav does, to biblical Hebrew words, is change the tense of the verb from future to past.

So instead of, “God will call Moses,” the sentence becomes, “God called to Moses.” Just a minor little letter and the whole sentence gets flipped.

This word is perfect as the beginning of this complex book of the Torah.

This word is also telling us something important about what is happening to Moses. God calls upon Moses and then speaks to him. Why might there be two verbs in the same sentence that are saying the same thing? What is the difference here between calling and speaking?

In this case, I want to borrow a bit of language from our Christian neighbors and for a moment explore what a “calling” might mean.

Christians often use this verb, to call, to reflect an idea of something that God is doing to each of us. We are called to a particular job, action, or moment. Those who are clergy folk are “called” to do it by God. That can be really powerful of an image, not just for individuals, but as a society.

As Jews, we don’t really use it that way, but we have a related concept or framing that might be useful for us. We use this term: השגחה פרטית, hashgachah pratit, divine providence. It is the idea that God is paying attention to each one of us, nudging us on our individual journies. Again, not exactly the same, but a powerful image.

For many, the idea of a personal god, one who is paying close attention doesn’t work, and I think that’s reasonable.

But for me, I love the idea of it. That the Divine is paying attention to me, cares what happens to me, has a vision for me. I certainly wouldn’t say that I know God’s plan, or that God has a plan. Honestly, it would be weird if I did. But at the same time, I do believe that God has a telos for the universe.

What is that ultimate purpose? No idea.

Dr. Martin Luther King is quoted as saying, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice,” which would be an example of this idea. The purpose of the universe is to create justice.

Another related framing is one of messianism, a transitionary person or era where everything changes. The idea that our entire paradigm gets shifted through the acts of a person or during an era. I had the pleasure of attending a brit milah yesterday via Zoom (ritual Jewish circumcision for baby boys eight days old), in which we invoke the possibility that each child could be that person. The idea of a paradigm-shifting era has always struck me as similar to the idea of the singularity.

This morning, as I was perusing the internet, as we Millennials like to do, I came across a video from September 2020, exploring an idea of repeating patterns in geometry.

In particular, one concept jumped out to me. The Penrose Tiling uses two shapes that tile to infinity without any repeating patterns.

Just pause there for a moment and think about that.

We recognize patterns that repeat in regular ways like squares or triangles, or even hexagons. We call these periodic. But the Penrose Tiling is what is called non-periodic. It repeats without creating regular patterns. This is getting into the weeds a bit, strongly recommend you watch the whole video.

This section of the video explains the part that jumped out to me:

Namely, the idea is that any part of the tiling that we see is just a part of an infinite plane in which it exists.

More to the point, we could never know where it is in that broader repetition, because of its infinite nature. It is unknowable.

This blows my mind! That balance between knowing and unknowing, that infinite quality that exists in our universe.

That’s sort of how I feel about God’s plan for each of us, that sense of “call” we might experience in our lives from time to time. It is one of those infinite unknowable tiles slipping into place and our experience of it.

And so, as we begin this new book of the Torah, we begin with a call from the Unknowable to act in the world towards an end in which we cannot describe or know anything about.

It is an auspicious moment in the Torah and our lives if we’re paying attention.

This overwhelming and expansive nature might make us feel lost, a speck in the vast universe. Or, we can see ourselves as an essential part of the pattern, the necessary tile that is our part.

We are not insignificant, we are impossibly significant.

Thank you for reading! In my With Torah and Love newsletter, I write about Torah, Talmud, self-awareness, and becoming our best selves as students of life and Judaism.

About the Author

Rabbi Jeremy Markiz is a teacher and consultant. He teaches the Torah rooted in personal growth, kindness, intentionality, and bettering the world. He writes the With Torah and Love newsletter.

He helps clergy, congregations, and Jewish organizations grow and communicate clearly in the digital world, develop effective strategies, and solve problems with his consulting firm, Next Level Rabbinics.