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That Little Aleph
Find yourself a little humility
The first word of Parshat Vayikra, the portion that opens Leviticus, is unsurprisingly Vayikra. But when you look at it in a Torah scroll, you’ll notice that the aleph at the end of the word looks very different, as it’s in much tinier printing than the other letters.
“And God spoke to Moses”-a seemingly innocuous sentence, once that is repeated over and over again in the Torah. Yet, beneath its surface, there is something much more meaningful going on. There are a number of small letters in the Torah. Each of them in their minimized form contain an immense amount of rabbinic commentary because hey, what’s the more rabbinic than coming up with 100 interpretations based on one small letter?
In our case here, I want to share with you a teaching of the Ba’al Haturim, Rabbi Jacob ben Asher from medieval Spain. In this verse, he claims this aleph is an allusion to an intimate conversation that Moses and God shared as Moses was transcribing God’s Torah.
God was dictating the text of the Torah to Moses. When he arrived at the words in question, “And then God called to Moses,” Moses hesitated.
"Who am I that God should call me?” asked Moses.
Moses emended God’s words to read vayikar - ויקר.
Leaving off the aleph changes the meaning from “And then God called to Moses” to “And then God happened upon Moses,” as if by coincidence. According to this teaching, Moses, in his abundant humility, wanted posterity to assume that it was a chance occurrence that God called to him and not some special designation.
But God insisted that Moses write the aleph. For God, it was important that generations know that God called Moses. Moses, in his abundant humility, asked permission to write this alef smaller than all the other alefs in the Torah. Thus, the aleph we see in the text is a compromise between the two positions.
Our sage Moses, the paragon of humility embodies it right here. Even though he has the whole backing of the book of Exodus and his long and arduous journey to support him, he doesn’t want people to think that he is, any way, special or overly chosen for this role. Or perhaps he’s battling his own ego a bit and needs the reminder that all of this could just be by happenstance.
With perfect balance, we too need to strive for this. To make space for godliness in our lives, we need to diminish the “aleph” that is our own ego. The “I” that gets in the way of serving “You.” So often our own obsession with the self impedes on our ability to serve others. We live in a culture of selfies and the celebration of individualism. We celebrate and reward certified egomaniacs in our celebrity culture and in our politics. Moses’ story reminds us that the key to his leadership was his humility. That’s what made him qualified to be called.
Yet, the second part, where God and Moses compromise is the crucial pivot point and also where it gets sticky, because becoming overly humble can also be dangerous.
To remove yourself, the essence of who you are, from your being is problematic and God knows this at the moment. God didn’t allow Moses to deny his critical role in being God’s partner in this world. God cannot go it alone. The almighty, the Holy Blessed One, needs something from us. This is what Heschel calls the
"mysterious paradox of faith - God is pursuing man….It is as if God were unwilling to be alone, and God has chosen man to serve."
We are essential partners in God's plan.
This is the duality in which we live. We remind ourselves that who we are shouldn’t be the only thing we ever focus on. The other side of the coin though is to remind ourselves that we were put into this world to partner with the Divine.
As Rabbi Bunim of P'shiskha tells, everyone should have two pockets, each containing a slip of paper. On one should be written: I am but dust and ashes, and on the other: The world was created for me. From time to time we must reach into one pocket, or the other. Some moments call for us to be like Moses and attempt to truly find humility, a sense of diminished self. Before you go too far, remember that God is there, gently prodding you to add in your aleph that you can announce to the world.
Shabbat Shalom and Happy Weekend