Little alephs need our help

Little alephs need our help

Sara Rae Perman
Sara Rae Perman

Vayikra, Leviticus 1:1-5:26

In this week’s parshah, which is the beginning of the book of Leviticus, we have something very unusual in the Torah scroll.  The first word, Vayikra, which means “And He called,” and which is also the Hebrew title of the book, ends with a little aleph.  It is very unusual for the Torah to contain large or little letters. (One of the other places is at the beginning of the Torah where the word Bereshit begins with a large bet.)

Needless to say, this puzzled the rabbis who came up with several explanations beyond a scribal error as the next word in Leviticus begins with an aleph. Thus, when the scribe was writing it down he might have forgotten the first aleph at the end of vayikra and inserted a little one when he realized his mistake, which we have continued to this day.

One interpretation for the little aleph suggests that it shows Moses’ humility in that he did not believe he deserved to be called by God.  The rabbis also understood that this shows Moses did not just enter the tabernacle any old time he desired, but rather waited until he was called.  Another interpretation is that it teaches us how children are to begin their Torah studies with Leviticus, which in traditional circles is the case.  

In a comment on the use of the word vayikra (He called) versus the word vayidaber (He spoke), which is more common, there is the suggestion that the voice of God in the tabernacle was one that only Moses could hear and no one else even if they were standing right outside the entrance.

I propose the little aleph might be there for another reason. To me, it is a reminder of those little voices that need to be heard and are often neglected.  In my rabbinate I have had the opportunity to work with individuals and groups that try to hear and help those little voices that are calling for help.

I am a member of the board of Mental Health America of Westmoreland County.  I agreed to serve on the board because I was aware of the stigma associated with those who were in need of mental health services.  Mental illness is an illness.  Like any illness, some people can get better and some cannot.

 But that does not mean that people with mental health issues should be treated like pariahs.  The reality is we all need to be mentally healthy.  The motto of MHA is, “There is no health without mental health.”

I have also served on the board of the Blackburn Center against Domestic & Sexual Violence.  Those who are helped by this agency represent other voices that are calling for help.  Those who seek the help of this agency have found the courage to speak, even if their voices are weak.  The Blackburn Center, like Mental Health America, realizes that the more of us with strong voices speak out and educate, the better it will be for those with the little voices.

Lastly, I have for the past 28 years served as a prison chaplain for the commonwealth, working first at SCI-Greensburg and more recently at SCI-Fayette. Our men and women who are incarcerated are paying for their crimes, but that does not mean they should not have the right to observe their Judaism, as limited as it may be. They do not have much of a voice and the commonwealth certainly does not want to hear from them.  It is the rabbis who serve as chaplains and the Aleph Institute (what a coincidence it has that name), with its volunteers who speak on behalf of the prisoners, trying to ensure that they can observe Shabbat, the holidays, kashrut (if they want) and learn even in the prison system.

It is not just these wonderful agencies and the people who are part of them who have to be the voices that call out.  We all have the obligation to be the voices for those little alephs.  Consider yourself called.

(This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.)