The third book of the Torah is known in English as "Leviticus", a word deriving from Greek and Latin, meaning, "pertaining to the Levites". This reflects the fact that in Judaism the priests - descendants of Aaron - were from the tribe of Levi, and that the ancient rabbinic name for the book was Torat Cohanim, "the law of the priests". It is an appropriate title. Whereas Shemot and Bamidbar are shot through with narrative, the book between them is largely about sacrifices and the rituals associated, first with the Tabernacle and later with the Temple in Jerusalem. It is, as the name Torat Cohanim implies, about the priests and their function as guardians of the sacred.
By contrast, the traditional name Vayikra, "And He called", seems merely accidental. Vayikra just happens to be the first word of the book, and there is no connection between it and the subjects with which it deals. The truth, I will argue here, is otherwise. There is a deep connection between the word Vayikra and the underlying message of the book as a whole.
To understand this we must note that there is something unusual about the way the word appears in a sefer Torah. Its last letter, an aleph, is written small - almost as if it barely existed. The standard-size letters spell out the word vayikar, meaning, "he encountered, he chanced upon." Unlike vayikra, which refers to a call, a summons, a meeting by request, vayikar suggests an accidental meeting, a mere happening.
With their sensitivity to nuance, the sages noted the difference between the call to Moses with which the book begins, and G-d's appearance to the pagan prophet Bilaam. This is how the midrash puts it:
What is the difference between the prophets of Israel and the prophets of the pagan nations of the world? . . . R. Hama ben Hanina said: The Holy One blessed be He reveals himself to the pagan nations by an incomplete form of address, as it is said, "And the Lord appeared to Bilaam", whereas to the prophets of Israel He appears in a complete form of address, as it is said, "And He called to Moses."
All [G-d's] communications [to Moses], whether they use the words "speak" or "say" or "command" were preceded by a call [keri'ah] which is a term of endearment, used by the angels when they address one another, as it is said "And one called to the other" [vekara zeh el zeh, Isaiah 6:3). However, to the prophets of the nations of the world, His appearance is described by an expression signifying a casual encounter and uncleanness, as it says, "And the Lord appeared to Bilaam."
Moses was both great and humble, and wanted only to write Vayikar, signifying "chance", as if the Holy One blessed be He appeared to him only in a dream, as it says of Bilaam [vayikar, without an aleph] - suggesting that G-d appeared to him by mere chance. However, G-d told him to write the word with an aleph. Moses then said to Him, because of his extreme humility, that he would only write an aleph that was smaller than the other alephs in the Torah, and he did indeed write it small.
I will bring such insecurity upon those of you who survive in your enemies' land that the sound of a driven leaf will make them flee from the sword. They will fall with no one chasing them . . . The land of your enemies will consume you. (26: 36-38)
I will remember My covenant with Jacob, as well as My covenant with Isaac and My covenant with Abraham. I will remember the land . . . Even when they are in their enemies' land, I will not reject them or abhor them so as to destroy them completely, breaking My covenant with them. I am the Lord their G-d. But for their sake I will remember the covenant with their ancestors whom I brought out of Egypt in the sight of the nations to be their G-d, I am the Lord. (26: 42, 44)
"If in spite of this you still do not listen to Me but continue to be hostile towards Me, then in My anger I will be hostile towards you, and I myself will punish you seven times for your sins." (26: 27-28) What does the word keri mean? I have translated it here as "hostile". There are other suggestions. The Targum reads it as "harden yourselves", Rashbam as "refuse", Ibn Ezra as "overconfident", Saadia as "rebellious".
A positive scriptural command prescribes prayer and the sounding of the alarm with trumpets whenever trouble befalls the community. For when Scripture says, "Against the adversary that oppresses you, then you shall sound an alarm with the trumpets" the meaning is: Cry out in prayer and sound an alarm . . . This is one of the paths to repentance, for when the community cries out in prayer and sounds an alarm when threatened by trouble, everyone realises that evil has come on them as a result of their own wrongdoing . . . and that repentance will cause the trouble to be removed.
If, however, the people do not cry out in prayer and do not sound an alarm but merely say that it is the way of the world for such a thing to happen to them, and that their trouble is a matter of pure chance, they have chosen a cruel path which will cause them to continue in their wrongdoing, and thus bring additional troubles on them. For when Scripture says, "If you continue to be keri towards Me, then in My anger I will be keri towards you", it means: If, when I bring trouble upon you in order to cause you to repent, you say that the trouble is purely accidental, then I will add to your trouble the anger of being-left-to-chance. (Mishneh Torah, Taaniyot, 1:1-3)