Over the years I have waxed rhapsodically about the countless layers of meaning and connection encoded into the Torah. Well, as I continue to study, it only keeps getting richer, and I am going to take you today on a little journey through our scribal tradition that carries a deep and important teaching for us as we enter a New Year.
In ancient times, the transmission of the Torah from generation to generation was safeguarded by schools of scribes, also known as sages, or rabbis. They were literate in an era of general illiteracy. Written documents were expensive and very rare, and with the rabbis lay the responsibility for revising and rewriting the scrolls as they wore out. They were also responsible for interpreting the sacred text, and for teaching those interpretations alongside the text. These complementary activities of writing and teaching came to be known as the Written Torah and the Oral Torah, that is, the written text and its many interpretations.
Over the generations, these learned scribes embedded clues and anomalies into the written Torah, in order to attract our attention and to compel us to seek deeper meanings. Torah scribes faithfully reproduce these oddities and patterns to this day. One method is to write certain letters majuscule or miniscule, that is, extra large or extra small. Just 17 times in the Torah scroll one comes across a single letter written larger or smaller than the standard, and each of these occurrences is ancient and quite intentional, accompanied by classic interpretations and asking for more.
Those of us who, in our ignorance, think that the Written Torah is the final word that Judaism has to offer are missing out on what makes Judaism tick. Interpretation, known as the Oral Torah, is our essential tradition. It requires careful reading, intellectual rigor, creative imagination, and it is downright fun.
With that in mind, I have a teaching for you today that focuses not on merely one verse of Torah, or one phrase, or even one word, but on one tiny letter, bursting with meaning.
The Book of Vayikra, also known as Leviticus, is the third and therefore central book of the Five Books of Moses that are contained in the Torah scroll. It begins with the phrase “Vayikra el Moshe” – “God called to Moses”. The first word of the book, Vayikra, which gives the entire book its Hebrew name, means “God called”. That’s a very evocative name, don’t you think? The central book of the Torah is named “God Called”.
The word Vayikra is written vav-yud-kuf-resh-aleph. When it appears at the beginning of Leviticus, the Aleph is always written very small. Why?
Aleph is unique in the Hebrew alphabet, for it has no sound. The rest of the Hebrew alphabet is consonantal. Each consonant has a sound: Bet is “B”, Mem is “M”. When the vowel markings are added the sounds can be extended: Ba, be, bo, boo, etc. But Aleph is soundless. Only when vowels are added do we hear it – or its absence: ah, eh, oh, oo. Aleph begins the alphabet, but has no sound. Our tradition teaches that Aleph is the voice of God. That is, Aleph is the open space, the silence, the pregnant possibility, the soundless inspiration, the in-breath that precedes all human speech. We see the Aleph, we shape it, we read it, but we cannot make its sound. In a tradition in love with language, this is deeply meaningful: the opening of our alphabet points us to the mystery from which our ability to speak emerges, giving us pause, making us listen before we begin.
Even the manner in which our scribal tradition shapes the Aleph is significant: Aleph is written by making a diagonal letter Vav, and then attaching a Yud above and a Yud below that line, mirroring each other – א. Vav means “and” and is a symbol of connection. In the shaping of the Aleph the Vav indicates the connection between the heavenly and earthly realms, as in the Beginning when God makes a separation between the waters above and the waters below. Yud literally means “hand” – “yad”, and the two Yuds that mirror each other in the Aleph are reaching towards each other across the Vav that connects them. Yud is also the tiniest letter - its Greek equivalent is Iota – and Yud therefore represents the point or the tiny seed that has no dimension of its own but is full of potential, and out of which our existence springs. The Yuds on both sides of the Aleph remind us that the essence of each realm can always be found in the other. The Aleph, therefore, is the Jewish version of the Yin/Yang symbol. In the apparent duality of our experience, all is actually One. Indeed, as the first letter of the alphabet, Aleph’s numerical value is 1, and the word for 1, Echad, begins with Aleph.
If we were to remove the Aleph from the end of Vayikra, we would be left with the Hebrew word Vayikar. Vayikra means “he called” and Vayikar means “he chanced upon”. This Aleph is so significant that our sages tell a charming and meaningful story about it: Moses was so humble – that is, he truly did not think he was anybody special – that the first time God called out to Moses, at the burning bush, Moses’ only reaction was “Why me?” And so our sages teach that the Aleph is writ small in Vayikra because the humble Moses had a disagreement with God. God is dictating the Torah to Moses, and they reach the beginning of Leviticus: “God called to Moses”. Moses says “I can’t write that!” And God says, “Look, I’m calling you, Moses, because you are able to receive my teachings and transmit them to your people. I am now going to instruct you in the ways of holiness.” And Moses responded, “I don’t deserve or want any credit, I am nobody special – I just happened to be in the right place at the right time. I can’t write “Vayikra el Moshe” – “God called to Moses”. Just say, “Vayikar el Moshe” – “Moses chanced upon God, and heard these instructions.” Moses and God could not come to an agreement, so finally they compromised, and Moses agreed to include the Aleph, but written very small.
Here is another interpretation of the meaning of the small Aleph. The two Hebrew words vayikra and vayikar – “called” and “chanced upon” are so strikingly similar. Only the silent Aleph distinguishes one from the other. And so, our sages ask, is life purposeful, or an accident? Do things just happen to us, or do they happen for a reason? Can we notice the Aleph, the silent, subtle divine voice, in the happenstances of our lives? I like to think that Moses was a great teacher because he could discern the little Aleph hovering within the course of his life’s events. Rather than view life as mere happenstance, Moses searched for the teaching that might be distilled from life. Moses sought the little Aleph that flits in and out of view as we endure the ups and downs of our journey, and Moses could write that Aleph down – small, but present. Torah literally means “Teaching”. Moses gave us Torah. Life is not a mere accident – the universe is calling to us: Leave slavery! Live consciously and conscientiously! Aim yourself toward a vision of wholeness and justice and peace – head toward that promised land!
Is the universe calling to us? We can legitimately argue about whether the purpose we may experience in our lives is the result of a calling larger than ourselves, as our tradition asserts, or merely a construction we build for ourselves. But either way, we all seek a life animated by a sense of purpose, and we pore over our lives in search of clues to guide us. That is, I think it is simply in our nature to look for meaning, to look for the small Aleph in the happenstances of our lives. In early July I fell off a ladder and fractured two vertebrae. It was a bad and dangerous fall, and I have been overwhelmed with feelings of gratitude and good fortune that I am almost healed and can anticipate a full healing. Naturally I asked myself, why did this happen? In other words, I tried to discern the small Aleph that would give me learning, meaning and new direction out of this happenstance. The first lessons were obvious: next time, make sure the ladder is securely placed on level ground, dummy! And don’t do dangerous things like that when no one else is home! But I shouldn’t be so glib: were I not of the conviction that there are teachings awaiting me in the course of my life, I might only conclude that it was the ladder’s fault, and why does this crap always happen to me!
But I do want to discern the meaning of events in my life, and so I pay the best attention that I can, despite my wounded pride at falling. The injury forced me to slow way down, and I began to notice things that I usually miss. I live in almost continuous forward drive. I noticed that I was exhausted. I noticed that my family really appreciated me slowing down – even though it meant other people had to do more dishes – and that the whole family system seemed calmer and happier. I noticed that I could pay closer attention to what and how I ate, and changed my diet for the better. That in turn made me calmer still. And then something really wonderful started happening: I started noticing the world around me more: the butterflies on the butterfly bush outside my window; the clouds and the sky; the fragrances of summer. I started to feel kind of drunk on the world, filled with gratitude and pleasure – a feeling that persists, thank God.
I’m pretty certain that I would never have slowed down of my own free will, and therefore would never have been available to learn these lessons so clearly. How strange to say that falling off a ladder and breaking my back was a call to me from the universe. And yet, to the extent that I have been willing to treat it as such, my life is better and richer than it was before. To the extent that I have been willing and able to notice the small Aleph in the events happening to me, I can discern a path forward that I could not find by myself.
A final, crucial caveat: Each of us can discern the small Aleph only for ourselves, not for others. When someone is struggling, and we announce, “I know why this is happening to you!” this is the height of hubris. Rather we can humbly wait for the other to ask us for help, and then search with them for answers. It is up to each of us to decipher God’s call in our own life.
And so, for this New Year, I invite you to notice the small Aleph through which Vayikar becomes Vayikra, and seemingly chance events become purposeful teachings in our lives, so that we can always be growing in wisdom, joy and love.