Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Make Yourself Small and Quiet like the Alef: Parshat Va-yiqra


Sefer Va-Yiqra parshat Va-Yiqra/Leviticus 1:1 reads:

וַיִּקְרָא, אֶל-מֹשֶׁה; וַיְדַבֵּר יְהוָה אֵלָיו, מֵאֹהֶל מוֹעֵד לֵאמֹר.

“Va-yiqra el-Moshe va-y’dabeyr Y-H-V-H eylav mey-ohel mo’eyd leymor.”
“And He called to Moshe and G@d spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting, saying:...”

Why is the letter Alef (א) at the end of the word “Va-yiqra” always written smaller than the surrounding letters?

“…called…” - according to an ancient scribal regulation, the last letter of the word “Va-yiqra” is in miniature. The RaMCHaL, Rabbi Moshe Chayim Luzzato in his book Derekh Ha-Shem writes that the Sacred Text was originally written in a continuous row of letters, without any division between the words. This is why Moshe did could not ascertain the future even though he had written the entire Torah. When the last letter of a word was the same as the first letter of the next, as is here the case, one character would often serve for both.

When at a later time both letters were written out, one of them was in smaller size to show that it did not originally occur in the Text - an illustration of the profound reverence with which the Sefer Torah was guarded by the Sofrim/Scribes.

This is a nice theory, however one does not have to look far in a Sefer Torah to see that many pairs of words end and begin with the same letter, yet nowhere else are there tiny ending-letters. So much for Luzzato.

Still others search for a deeper meaning. Why is this particular letter of this particular word written so? The use of the word “call” indicates that G@D wished to speak to Moshe, and purposefully called him. G@D’s prophesy to Bil’am (Be-midbar/Numbers 23:16), however, is introduced by “va-yiqar”, without a letter Alef, a word that has two connotations: “by chance” (מִקְרִי - miq’rey) and "having fallen into spiritual contamination" (מִקְרֶה - miq'reh) as in 1 Shmu'el/I Samuel 20:26. This implies that, while G@D had a reason to speak to Bil’am, He did not do so with enthusiasm. The small Alef used in this word makes it appear like the word used for Bil’am.

The Ba’al Ha-Turim, Rabbi Ya'akov ben Asher, tells us that when G@D was dictating the Torah to Moshe Rabbeynu on Mount Sinai, G@D chose the word “Va-yiqra” to indicate that G@D had specifically selected Moshe to lead us and to show what an intimate relationship the two of them possessed. Moshe Rabbeynu, being “The Most Modest Man in All The World” as the Torah tells us (that’s quite a thing to be able to boast about - I wonder how he dealt with writing that down?), was reluctant to enscribe this, preferring instead to write “Vayiqar” - which means “He happened by” - they just ran into each other - to suggest a coincidence in his relationship to G@D rather than his chosen-ness. Chosen-ness is a heavy yoke to bear. So the Holy One and Moshe struck a compromise. That is why the Alef is so small, to express the humility of Moshe Rabbeynu in this sacred, intimate relationship.

This smallness, ironically, backfires as it draws our attention to the letter and word, which is the opposite of Moshe’s intention. So he didn't get what he wanted after all...

Also, it actually serves to give prominence to the letter as if it were a separate word, ie: “Va-yiqar Alef…”. The shoresh/root of “Alef” means, among other things, “to tame or restrain” (אִלֵּף - ileyf), or to be trained or prepared (אֻלַּף - ulaf), thus implying that no one should learn always to be “small” and humble.

Rav Bunam of P’schish’cha taught that no one was better qualified to teach this lesson than Moshe Rabbeynu because he was not only the greatest of all prophets, but also the humblest person who ever lived.

Va-yiqar Alef also means "and The One called...". Alef's numerical value is 1, symbolizing the unique oneness of G@d. This is why Alef comes first in the Hebrew alefbet, and why all the other letters turn to face away in awe.

The Chernobler Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Nachum, wrote in Sefer Me'or Eynayim that the reason for the diminished letter Alef is to reveal to us that The Holy Blessed One, who is the Aluf (אַלּוּף - commander or champion) of the universe, is concealed within every Jewish soul, and He calls out to our hearts to return to Him. This letter Alef is the spiritual force within us, the qol d'mamah dakah, "still, small voice", or rather, the "voice of subtle silence" of G@d that we hear within. This is the voice of your conscience.


Further Reading:
Ari Elon’s book בא אל הקודש
Rabbi Michael L. Munk's Wisdom of the Hebrew Alphabet: The Sacred Letters as a Guide to Jewish Thought and Deed
Dovid Leitner's Understanding the Alef-Beis: Insights into the Hebrew Letters and the Methods for Interpreting Them

Based on entry originally posted March 2005 at Netivat Sofrut: Diary of the Soferet
Subsequently published February 2006 at Netivat Sofrut: Diary of the Soferet
Further posted March 2006 at RadicalTorah.org
Most recently published March 2009 on Facebook
Copyright A. Barclay

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