The small, silent aleph
Parshat Vayikra, Leviticus 1:1-5:26, Deuteronomy 25:17-19
The third of the Torah’s five books is known to most of us by its Latin name Leviticus. This is because the book’s greatest concerns are the laws pertaining to the Levitical priests of ancient Israel. However, in Hebrew, the name for the book isVayikra, which is the first word of the first phrase that appears in the text, “Vayikra el Moshe … And [God] called upon Moses.” The reader will appreciate that for the same reason, the portion we read this week — the first in the Book of Leviticus — is also known as Vayikra.
It is a curious word, Vayikra, and not only due to the word’s meaning. Additionally, the word captures our attention because of how it is written within the text itself. Consider that the word is spelled with five letters — vav, yud, kuf, resh, aleph — yet only the first four of those letters are printed at full size; the final letter aleph is intentionally written in a smaller font.
It is as if the vav, yud, kuf and resh are written in something akin to 12-point font, while the aleph appears in what is, in contrast, similar to 10-point font. Vayikra is one of only a handful of words where a given letter is written in a smaller or outsized manner. Why would it be so?
Three answers present themselves, each more interesting than the previous.
The most obvious explanation is that this discrepancy is originally due to a scribal error that was repeated again and again over the years such that by now this is the authoritative way in which the text is written.
A second explanation for this anomaly posits that the aleph is written smaller than the other letters to highlight Moses’ lack of ego. In short, the small aleph is a testament to Moses’ humility. Recall Moses’ reaction to being summoned at the burning bush. It was in essence, “Why me?”
Here too our Sages posit, even as God dictated the Torah directly to Moses, our pre-eminent teacher was humble, claiming, “I can’t write Vayikra el Moshe — God called to Moses. After all, who am I that You should call on me?” To which God responds, “What would you have me do? Drop the final aleph so the text reads, Vayikeir el Moshe — Moses chanced upon God [and heard these words]?” So, we are told, God and Moses compromise, with Moses agreeing to include the aleph, but only if God allows him to write it smaller than all the other letters.
A final explanation for the reason the aleph appears diminished in the first word of the Book of Leviticus is hidden within the fact that the two Hebrew words vayikra and vayikeir — “called” and “chanced upon” — are so similar. Only a single letter (and a silent one at that) distinguishes one experience from the other. Therefore, our Sages teach, the aleph is small precisely to call our attention to the fact that we have a choice.
Will we see/hear/read the aleph in our own experience, or will we fail to recognize what is right in front of (and all around) us?
Our choice is whether we will understand our life to be purposeful or an accident, to determine whether we believe things just happen or that they happen for a reason. But for the small, silent aleph, it’s not so clear.
Tradition teaches Moses was such an inspiring figure precisely because he was, in fact, able to discern the soft, silent divine voice, whispering to him from within the course of life’s events.
In our own lives, will we too hear the aleph vying for our attention? Will our lives be dictated by mere chance, or will we, like Moses, recognize and respond to the holy call of our higher selves?
Rabbi Aaron Bisno is the spiritual leader of Rodef Shalom Congregation. This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.