Parshat Vayikra

By Rabbi Min Kantrowitz, ’04

After the high drama of Exodus, we arrive at the beginning of the third of the Five Books which make up the core of the Hebrew Bible. Genesis portrayed creation, Exodus described liberation, and God’s presence now dwells among the people Israel, filling the Tabernacle. We are ready to receive instructions from the Holy One about how to behave and how to make offerings in the Tabernacle.

This book is known in English as “Leviticus” (from the ancient Greek and Latin referring to the priestly tribe of the Israelites, “Levi“). In Hebrew, the first word in the book (and in the parsha which bears the same name) is “VaYikra”, meaning “and He called”, referring to God’s calling out instructions to Moshe.

These instructions emphasize ritual, legal, and moral practices rather than beliefs. In a way, we are being told how to conduct ourselves now that we’ve received the gift of Torah. The details of each different type of sacrifice to be offered in the Temple correspond to distinct prohibitions detailed in the laws of the Torah.

Just before beginning this inventory of actions designed to repair our relationship with God after erroneous, sinful or misguided action we see the word “VaYikra”— God calls out from the Tent of Meeting. This ‘calling’ proves to the people that, indeed, the Holy Source is dwelling among them and is about to tell them how to act as a Holy People. A specific peculiarity in the way the word “VaYikra” is scribed in every Torah scroll caught my attention, and that of many other commentators.

The final Hebrew letter in the word, an aleph, is written in miniature. Many commentators have speculated on the origin and meaning of this traditional scribal practice. They note that if the aleph was totally missing, the word would be ‘VaYikar’, meaning ‘and he happened’, which doesn’t sound as if it were an intentional Divine act, but an accidental occurrence. Rashi comments, based on the Midrash: [Genesis Rabbah 52:5] Vayikar is an expression ordinarily used to denote events of a casual character, an expression for something shameful, an expression for an unclean happening. But the aleph is NOT missing, it is intentionally scribed —in miniature. The Baal HaTurim (14th -century Spain) explains that the small aleph is a reflection of Moses’ humility. Simcha Bunim of Peshischa, the Chassidic Rabbi from 19th -century Poland, states that the smallness of the aleph calls attention to it and gives it prominence, to teach us the importance of humility. (He is the same person who teaches that one of our pockets should contain a piece of paper saying: ”I am but dust and ashes” and in the other pocket should be a piece of paper saying: “For my sake was the world created.”). Clearly, this tiny aleph is calling out to readers “Drash me”!

Here is another speculation, based on the idea that not only is the aleph miniature, but it also makes no sound. The very first letter in our alphabet is silent. Bet is the first letter written in the Torah, beginning the word “Breishit”. Aleph is the sound of all potential creation, the silence out of which Creation occurs. The expression “VaYikra” refers to creation in Genesis (Gen 1:5 and others). Just as silence holds the potential for Creation in Breishit, the silent and scaled down aleph of VaYikra hints at an important question: “What is a silent call?” Psalm 65:2 states “lecha dumia tehilla—-to You, silence is praise”. We use the expression “to feel called” for the pull toward the Divine, which Rabbi Zalman Shachter-Shalomi referred to as “theotropism”. In Ecclesiastes we read: “A time to keep silence and a time to speak”. We use silence in prayer, as in the silent Amida. In Pirkei Avot, Shimon says: “I have found nothing better for a person than silence.” When we pray for our lips to be opened prior to the Amida, we recognize that silence is a powerful precursor to prayer.

Perhaps this scribal tradition is a reminder that prior to performing the rituals detailed in the psukim that make up the remainder of this Biblical book, we need to be silent, to listen, as Elijah did in 1 Kings 19:12, for that still small voice of the Divine. The tiny aleph of VaYikra reminds us of the immense power of silence.

May each of us find time to be silent and listen for a call during this week of VaYikra.