Lev. 1:1 – 5:26
Rabbi Gary Pokras
In Hebrew, both the name of the book of Leviticus and its first parasha get their name from the first word in the text: VaYikra. VaYikra means “And He called.” Usually, the Torah uses two different verbs to describe how God communicated with Moses: VaYidaber or VaYomeir, both of which mean God “spoke” or “said.” The use of the verb “to call” at the beginning of a book of Torah is notable, especially if the purpose of the book is to detail how we should offer sacrifices to God.
The word “sacrifice” in English shares a root with the word “sacred.” It means giving something up (with an emphasis on “up”). The Hebrew word for sacrifice is korban, which shares a root with the word karov (which means “close” or “near”). The purpose of the korban was to draw closer to God. To teach us how, God first calls to Moses, and by extension to us.
For millennia, the word VaYikra has been scribed in Torah scrolls in an odd way. The last letter, an aleph, is half the size of the other letters. This tiny little aleph calls us, saying darsheini (interpret me)!1 Rabbi Shaul Feinberg shares some of the most well-known interpretations. The little aleph represents the humility of Moses, even after he ascended the heights with God and became the greatest prophet in Jewish history. Moses understood that his accomplishments were not merely his own and saw himself as an instrument of a higher power. Rabbi Feinberg, a teacher himself, applied this to the relationships between teachers and students. When teachers give up (sacrifice) a bit of their egos, it makes room for others in the classroom to make meaningful contributions. This in turn, allows everyone to “come closer.” Rabbi Feinberg also notes that the small aleph may suggest that the meaning of God, or of the lives we live, can be found in the smallest of details.2
The idea of finding God in the smallest aleph is echoed in the mystical tradition, which offers a thought-provoking interpretation of the Revelation at Mount Sinai. The Torah describes how the Israelites were filled with fear as God spoke. They turned to Moses for help, asking him to get the Commandments on their behalf, so that they would not have to listen to any more themselves. Moses complied. So, how much of the Ten Commandments did they hear? According to the mystics, they only heard the first letter of the first word – an aleph. Just the sound of that one letter was enough to completely overwhelm the Israelites. But what does an aleph sound like? Many people think it is a silent letter than only takes on the sound of the vowel it is attached to. However, the aleph is not entirely silent. It is the tiny guttural sound we make at the back of our throats before we speak. It is incredibly quiet, and the only way we can hear it is if we listen – very carefully. This too requires a sort of pulling back – of not filling the space around us with our own noise. The mystics teach that God has been continuously speaking the cosmic aleph from the top of Mount Sinai since the Beginning. The great miracle of the Revelation was not that God spoke, but all of Israel, together, listened. God calls to us eternally, and if we listen, if we pay attention to the tiniest details, then with both effort and concentration we too may be able to hear.