A Small Letter, a Great Message – Shabbat Vayikra, Friday, March 11, 2022

Once upon a time, in a little Jewish town hundreds of years ago, a scribe hunched over a huge piece of parchment, straining in the fading light as evening came.

The scribe was engaged in one of the holiest tasks of his lifetime: To take a pot of ink and a stack of tanned animal hides, and with them create a Sefer Torah, a sacred Torah scroll, containing the Five Books of Moses. A scroll that would be read by the leaders of his local synagogue each Monday and Thursday and on Shabbat, and cherished – God willing – by the Jews of his town for generations.

He had a finished scroll in front of him, and his job was to copy it precisely. One mistake, and an entire sheet of parchment would be ruined and would have to be re-done. It would take months and months of tireless work, making his hand sore and his eyes weary. But it was holy writ, and holy work.

The scribe already had finished the Book of Genesis and the Book of Exodus. After leaving a sizable gap in the column, he carefully crafted the first word of the Book of Leviticus: Vayikra – and God called. Vav. Yud. Kuf. Reish. Alef. Whew. He continued, checking each letter as he worked with the completed scroll he used as his model. A few more tedious hours and he had completed the first several verses.

As he went on, the scribe was satisfied with the quality of his work. But he had missed something. Something big. Or, rather, something small. For some reason, when he completed the word Vayikra, he made the alef at the end smaller than the other letters. All the other letters of all the other words of all the other columns of all the other sheets of the entire Torah. He never caught it. And so it remained. And because his skill was so exemplary, and the scroll so beautiful, it was used as a model from which dozens of other scribes copied – and hundreds after them. And they all made the alef a bit smaller because that’s what the model showed. They never questioned it. They just did it.

So the little alef became a tradition, a norm, a standard in the scroll. Any time you open one up now, you’ll see it the same way. And because it’s like that in the scroll, most books of the Torah also print it that way.

And that, my friends, is the story of the small alef.

Now, I have to tell you – I just totally made that up. I did. Because we don’t know why the alef is small. You can Google it. Research it in Torah commentaries. But they won’t give you a decent historical explanation. So I figured that scribal error was as good a reason as any.

But far be it for the rabbis to let it go at that. You knew they wouldn’t, didn’t you? After all, if, as the sages believe, there is deeper meaning in every single word and every single letter of the Torah itself, then there must also be significance to every letter in the way it’s written down – including the little alef at the end of Vaykra.

Any explanation that you’ll find involves Midrash: Interpretation, explanation, uncovering a Jewish value.

So let’s take a look.

א וַיִּקְרָא אֶל־מֹשֶׁה וַיְדַבֵּר יְהוָֹה אֵלָיו מֵאֹהֶל מוֹעֵד

God called out to Moses and spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting.

This is how the Book of Leviticus begins. And it’s a good start. It’s a reminder that the Book of Exodus closed last week with the completion of the Mishkan, the Tent of Meeting, which would be God’s dwelling place among the Israelites wherever their journey took them. And now, whenever God wanted to talk to Moses, it wouldn’t require finding an impressive mountain top. God always would be — right there.

But that first word. And that last letter. That’s what draws the attention of the sages.

Rabbinic commentary generally focuses on the idea that the small alef is a sign of Moses’s humility. In the teaching of Rabbi Simchah Bunim, a great Chassidic master in 18th-century Poland,

“Even though Moses attained the greatest heights ever reached by man, he was unmoved by that fact and remained as humble as ever. When a person stands at the top of a mountain, he does not boast about how tall he is, because it is the mountain that makes him high.”[1] And so, Moses, who first spoke to God on the top of Mount Sinai, always reminds himself – and the people – that whatever he has accomplished is God’s doing, not his.

There’s actually one version of this teaching that says the small alef is the result of a divine negotiation. The great 13th-century sage Jacob ben Asher[2] teaches that the alef is written as a small letter because Moses wanted it out completely. He wanted the text to say only vayakar – and it happened. It would imply that God’s call was just a chance occurrence, the way that Torah later describes the call to the pagan prophet Balaam. But God said, no Moses, vayikra –I’m calling especially to you because I want everyone to know how beloved you are to me! And so they compromised. Moses wrote the word the way God wanted, but made the the alef small.

It’s a beautiful testimony to the true greatness of someone who remains humble, no matter how great others see him.

But the explanation I like best is the one offered by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, of blessed memory, who was the chief rabbi of the Oethodox synagogues of the United Kingdom. He, too, focused on the difference between these two wordsone with an alef and one without, one a powerful call and the other a random event. And here’s what he taught.

“The letter aleph is almost inaudible. Its appearance in a sefer Torah at the beginning of Vayikra is almost invisible. Do not expect – the Torah is intimating – that the presence of God in history will always be as clear and unambiguous as it was during the Exodus from Egypt and the division of the Red Sea. For much of the time it will depend on your own sensitivity. For those who look, it will be visible. For those who listen, it can be heard. But first you have to look and listen. If you choose not to see or hear, then Vayikra will become Vayikar. The call will be inaudible. History will seem mere chance.”[3]

But Rabbi Sacks knew, as we all know, that history is not mere chance at all. Our very existence as Jews in the 21st century, he teaches, is testimony to that.

Events in history do not happen by chance, and they are always connected.
Rabbi Sacks notes that it is not by chance that Hitler chose the Jews – vulnerable and relatively powerless – as his target for genocide. And today, we know that it is not by chance that Vladimir Putin, a lingering remnant of Cold War thinking, avarice and paranoia, chose Ukraine – vulnerable and relatively powerless — as his target for conquest.

As Jews, we also know what it means to be called by God. Vayikra: God calls to each of us as God once called to Moses – with power and purpose. It is now our responsibility to, humbly but forcefully, represent Jewish values to the world. It is now our task to speak truth to power. To refuse the bully his victory. To provide whatever care and support we can to the people of Ukraine, whether through contributions (which we continue to make through the World Union for Progressive Judaism), through our messages to our political leadership, or through our determination to weather some temporary inconveniences in the advancement of peace, of democracy, and of freedom for all.

It should not – it cannot — just be in the words of the Haggadah or the yearning in our Shabbat prayers that we speak of redemption for humanity. As God’s treasured people, the Torah teaches, we must live as a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.[4]

 Ken yehi ratson. Be this God’s will and our own. As we say together: Amen.


©2022 Audrey R. Korotkin

[1] Torah Gems Vol II, compiled by Aharon Yaakov Greenberg, trans. Rabbi Dr. Shmuel Himelstein (Tel Aviv: Yavneh Publishing House, 1992), p. 241.

[2] Kitzur Ba’al HaTurim to Lev. 1:1. Mesorah Publishing. See http://www.sefaria.org.

[3] https://www.rabbisacks.org/covenant-conversation/vayikra/between-destiny-and-chance/. Accessed March 11, 2022.

[4] Exodus 19:6.

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