The Joy of the Little Alef or The Little Alef that Could

Today we start reading the book of Leviticus. In Hebrew we call it Vayikra, We translate it as “And He called” but have you ever looked at how it is written in the Torah? Also in our Chumash, the Torah Commentary and in the Tikkun that I practice from. The last letter is a very little alef. Take a look. It has been this way for two thousand years and no body really knows why. The little Hebrew note in the Chumash can be translated as “according to received tradition”.

This little word, with its little Alef, teaches us much. Even today.

As Rabbi Len Levin, a professor at the Academy for Jewish Religion reminds us, there are two issues with this word. The first is that the clause is missing a subject. “Vayikra el Moshe.” We usually translate this as “And he called to Moses.” Who called? Perhaps as the Kabbalists suggest it is G-d, perhaps “Ehyeh”. I wonder about the word “el” which can be translated as “to” but the very same word can be translated as G-d and the usual direct object marker is “et”. Rabbi Levin points out that modern scholars suggest that it completes a sentence at the very end of Exodus, thus linking the books together. “Moses was unable to enter the Tent of Meeting (that portable mishkan) because the Presence of the Lord (Shechinah) filled the He (the Lord called to Moses from the Tent of Meeting.”

I like it.

The second issue is that little Alef. Now we know that Alef is the first letter of the Alef Bet. And we know that it is a silent letter. The rabbis have a field day with what this little alef could mean. I call it the “Little Alef that Could.”

Rabbi Levin teaches that his favorite is Rabbi Abraham Saba (1440-1508) who taught in his commentary Tzeror Hamor that the small alef is that “Moses because of his humility, distanced himself from assuming authority and would run away and make himself small until G-d had to call him.” Or perhaps it is because Alef is the first letter of the word “Anochi—I” and therefore represents a small ego. Both these teachings seem to be about a leader with humility. It reminds me to turn around and look at our ark. “Da lifney mi atah omaid—Know before whom you stand.” That phrase strives to keep me humble as I lead the congregation in prayer. It is something Moses certainly knew.

And I will tell you something else. I once flunked a Bible exam about where I had to translate a passage about Moses and humility. I translated something as “Moses was humbled” because I knew that it was the past tense. But apparently there is a difference between “Moses was humble” and “Moses was humbled.” “Moses was humble” implies an internal state of humility. “Moses was humbled” is something I was trying to say happened to him at the hands of Aaron and Miriam.It was a humbling experience.  I still think you could read that text either way.

But I want to tell you two more stories about Alef. The first is from the Zohar. It has been illustrated by Ben Shahn and called the Alphabet of Creation. All the letters of the Alef Bet present themselves before G-d and begs, entreats G-d that G-d should use that very letter to create the world. This parade of letters begins with Tav, the last letter of the Alef Bet. After all the very word Tov, good, begins with Tav and so does Torah. Each letter is rejected, until Bet presents himself. Bet is given the honor because Baruch, Blessed begins with Bet. So the world is created with the word, Bereshit. In the beginning. But what about Alef.? Why did Alef not present herself? Alef answers G-d, “All the other letters have presented themselves before Thee uselessly, why should I present myself also? And then, since I have seen Thee accord to the letter Bet this precious honor, I would not ask the Heavenly King to reclaim that which He has given to one of his servants.” G-d responded, saying, “Oh Alef, Alef. Even though I have chosen the letter Bet to help Me in the Creation of the world, you too shall be honored.” And so G-d rewarded Alef for her modesty, her humility, by giving her first place, the first letter of the 10 Commandments.

And that is the next story. Rabbi Larry Kushner tells this one in his Book of Miracles for Young People. “No one really knows for certain what happened at Mount Sinai. Some people believe that G-d dictated the entire Torah word for word. Others believe that it included the Oral Law as well. Some believe that G-d inspired Moses. In Makot 23a and b, the rabbis of the Talmud were having just such an argument—what happened at Sinai. It teaches us that G-d didn’t give the ten commandments, but only the first two sayings. One who remembers that there is a G-d who frees people and who has no other gods will be religious. Another rabbi argued that it was just the first saying. Still another said that it was just the first word of the first saying, Anochi. But Rabbi Mendl Torum of Rymanov said, “Not even the first word. All G-d said was the first letter of the first word of the first saying, the first letter of the Alef-bet, alef” Now this is somewhat problematic, since Alef is silent. Almost but not perfectly. You see alef makes a tiny, little sound that is the beginning of every sound. Open your mouth (go ahead, do it). Stop! That is alef. G-d made the voice of Alef so quiet that if you made any other noise you wouldn’t be able to hear it. At Sinai, all the people of Israel needed to hear was the sound of Alef. It meant that G-d and the Jewish people could have a conversation.”

We also learn from the Zohar that the whole Torah is contained in the letter Alef. This really is the little Alef that could.

But there is more. Usually we think that most of Leviticus is addressed to the priests. It is all about the sacrificial system and the role of the priests in executing it. It is about drawing the people closer to G-d. One of the words for sacrifice, Korban, actually has the same root as draw close. But there are two notable exceptions to this speaking to the priests. Right here, right at the beginning it says, “And He called to Moses from the Tent of Meeting, saying, Speak to the Israelite epople and say to them…” Speak to all of them. Not just the priests. That means that G-d calls you. In the Haftarah we learn that G-d chose us. While some are uncomfortable with Jews being the chosen people for fear that it sounds like we are better than everyone else, we still hear echos of that in our Torah blessing—who chose us among all people, and in the Ahavah Rabbah prayer. I always liked one of my Bar Mitzvah students understanding of this that while G-d chooses us, we choose G-d.

Nonetheless I think that G-d does call and G-d does choose. Even today. Every year I buy a Haggadah or two for my collection. This year I bought the Unofficial Hogwarts Haggadah and a small little volume called the Ayekah Haggadah, Hearing Your Own Voice. Ayeka means “Where are you?” and it is the question that G-d asked Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. It is the question that is asked each of us as we confront the Passover story and place ourselves in it. Where are we? Where are we on our journey? What is the narrow place we are being called to leave? What is the place we are called to be? Each of us is to see ourselves as experiencing the miracle of the Exodus. Each of us must tell our child on that day, what the Lord did for me when I went forth from Egypt. Oh, and Ayeka begins with the letter Alef.

Frederick Buechner taught that “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”

So close your eyes for a minute. See if you can hear G-d calling to you. Ayeka—where are you? Vayikra. What does G-d want you to do? What is G-d calling you to do? (Hold silence here)

What does G-d want you to do? Micah thought it was simple—“To do justly, to love mercy and walk humbly with your G-d” (Micah 6:8)

One last thought as we prepare for Passover. This portion teaches that no grain offering can be made with any leaven, chamatz. As we rid our homes of chamatz and scrub our kitchens clean, the harder job is to rid our selves of spiritual chamatz. Chamatz is a metaphor for being puffed up and taking up more than our rightful place. It is the opposite of humility.

There you have it. The little Alef that could. May this be a Pesach were we are humble but not humbled, where we can hear G-d call to each of us, and where we can find ourselves going forth from Egypt, out of the narrow spaces of our lives.

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