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Vayikra: No "I" in Moses

Leviticus 1:1–5:26

"God summoned Moses and He spoke with him from the Tent of Meeting, saying..." (Leviticus 1:1).

The first word of this week's portion, itself the first portion in the third book of the Torah, is VAYIKRa: "summoned." That's not a typographical error; the letter aleph at the end of the Hebrew word is intentionally written in miniature in a Torah scroll (and usually in print as well). This is sufficiently unusual to raise the question: why?

First, a brief digression into Hebrew script. The Hebrew alphabet in its current form has been around for 2,500 years, having returned with the Jews from the Babylonian exile (where it was used for Aramaic) and replacing the "Phoenician" alphabet that had been in use throughout the First Temple period. The written alphabet does not distinguish between regular-sized and "capital" letters—hence, for instance, the recurrent difficulty in deciphering proper nouns (as in names and titles). In a Torah scroll, however, occasionally one finds some characters enlarged; an example is the letter vav in the word gahOn (Leviticus 11:42), which, according to scribal tradition, marks the exact midpoint of the Torah.

If letters are enlarged to call attention to them, it is reasonable to suppose that they would be shrunk to deflect attention from them. That appears to be the case with VAYIKRa. Rabbi Jacob ben Asher (Germany and Spain; 1269-1343), in a Torah commentary that devotes exceptional attention to Hebrew orthography, speculates as to the reason. Basing himself on the fact that Moses himself was writing the scroll at God's dictation, he notes:

Being truly humble, Moses desired to write VAYIKR, which signifies happenstance (mikreh) . . . as though God had appeared to him [of all people] only by chance. God then ordered him to add the aleph; but Moses, out of humility, agreed to write it only in miniature.

The miniaturization of the aleph, according to this interpretation, was thus deliberate, representing Moses' determination to shift attention away from his personal accomplishments and diminish his exceptional status.

Where have we encountered this determination before?

At the height of the crisis over the golden calf, God, in righteous indignation, says to Moses: "Now, just leave Me be; I will destroy them and make you into a great nation" (Exodus 32:10).  Moses successfully entreats Him to relent. Still, it must have been a heady moment for Moses, inevitably reminiscent of God's great promise to Abraham: "I shall make you a great nation" (Genesis 12:2). And then there were the rays of light emanating from his face, surely an ego-enhancing experience if ever there was one. How could even Moses fail to swell with self-pride at the visible evidence of such preeminence? Yet we found him deliberately obscuring his radiance with a veil.

A more homiletical approach, borrowing the terms of Freudian psychology, might note that the Hebrew word for "I," anokhi, begins with the letter aleph. Visually, then, a healthy ego might be signified by an ordinary aleph, an inflated ego by a large ("majuscule") aleph—and an ego that has been held in check by a miniature aleph. Any ordinary person would be entitled to consider even a solitary summons from God as license to bask in his exceptionality; Moses, despite being summoned regularly to the divine presence, was exceptional precisely in shunning the temptation.

Many may be called, few may be chosen, and fewer still have the strength of character to divert undue recognition for their service. If we ponder how, later on, God could have instructed Moses to write that "the man Moses was the most humble on the face of the earth" (Numbers 12:3) without forcing him to contravene the very quality being celebrated, the miniature aleph give us a clue to Moses' ingenious solution.

Moshe Sokolow is professor of Jewish education at the Azrieli Graduate School of Yeshiva University.



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