Why the Torah’s Tiny Aleph Means So Much – J.
The Torah Column is supported by a generous gift from Eve Gordon-Ramek in memory of Kenneth Gordon.
This week’s parashah, Vayikra, contains a famous little letter that has generated rich commentary throughout the ages and has enormous significance for our times. The letter is the aleph at the end of the first word of the parashah, Vayikra, “And God called.” (Leviticus 1:1)
In the Torah scroll, the silent aleph at the end of the word is written in very small characters, much smaller than the rest of the letters of the Torah. Of course, commentators ask why.
Hasidic commentators, in particular, take the tiny aleph to be a message about the humility of Moses, an indication that Moses was modest about his special ability to receive direct communication from God. Likewise, each of us must practice the trait of humility (a deeply counter-cultural message in our time).
Rabbi Bunam of Peshisha (1765-1827) pointed out that Moses could have been justifiably proud of his relationship with God, given his ability to “go behind the curtain” with God. On the contrary, Rabbi Bunam deduces from this text that Moses did not enter the Divine Presence until he was “called”, and even when he was called he made himself small, standing with humility in the Presence of the Divine.
Rabbi Bunam goes on to say that although Moses achieved an extraordinarily high spiritual level, he did not become arrogant or prideful about it, maintaining a humble attitude. (Remember we read in Numbers 12:3 that Moses was the most humble person on the face of the Earth.) Rabbi Bunam suggests that it is like a person standing on the top of a mountain. If they stood on flat ground, they wouldn’t be taller than anyone else. It is only because of the gifts that God has bestowed on them that they have the privilege of standing at such a high standard (quoted in “Itturei Torah”, volume 4, page 7).
I cherish our tradition’s many teachings on humility, which stand in stark contrast to a culture in which arrogance is often seen as an expression of strength and competence, while humility is seen as a sign of weakness and less capacity. Our culture constantly communicates that we must “put ourselves out there,” work to get ahead no matter the cost to others, and proclaim our skills to all who can hear.
In this context, humility is often seen as incompetence and inadequacy.
My colleague Alain Morinisa leader in the revival of Mussar practice in our time, writes that genuine humility is in no way related to humiliation or low self-esteem.
True humility, he writes, takes up just the right amount of space – no more and no less than we are entitled to, with an awareness of the space that others are also entitled to occupy.
It takes a lot of spiritual strength to claim humility as spiritual strength – not a message one doesn’t deserve, but an expression of wisdom about the limitation of a person’s gifts and abilities. What we have in our lives is the result of what has been given to us, especially the fundamental facts of our lives, which are gifts from God.
Moreover, much of what he has and has access to is a gift from those who came before us, who laid the groundwork for us to reach a high place.
Amid the racial reckoning going on in our own society, there is another level of meaning in Rabbi Bunam’s teaching that I had never noticed before.
The high accomplishments that many of us have attained are not entirely – or even primarily – the result of our own special gifts. I was able to go to college and college and buy my first house, for example, because my parents, as white Jews, had white privileges. My dad grew up poor and my mom was an immigrant, but my dad went to law school and bought a first house on the GI bill, benefits to which he would not have had access if he had been a black veteran. If I hadn’t inherited my parents’ privileged life, my own life would have turned out very differently.
It is very tempting to see our own successes solely as the expression of our own efforts and talents. We have surely worked hard to get where we are. But if we (those of us who are white Jews) fail to see how American society gives us advantages that are not available to people of color, we mistakenly believe that we have reached “the top of the mountain”. simply because we deserved it.
In fact, many others deserved it too, but didn’t have the same access. In spiritual terms, ignoring the benefits we have received as a gift is arrogance.
We didn’t ask for this white privilege, and we couldn’t give it back even if we wanted to.
American society treats us (white Jews) the way it does because of deep-rooted racial prejudices, which will not be easily transformed. The least we can do is acknowledge that we received benefits that others also deserved.
The virtue of humility demands, at the very least, that we are grateful for what we have received and that we put it to good use, for the good of all.