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A little i

Torah Talk on this week’s portion of Vayikra 5780

This week we begin the middle book of the Torah, Leviticus. The Hebrew name for this book comes from its first word, Vayikra, God called. There is a famous idiosyncrasy about the aleph, the last Hebrew letter in the word vayikra as it’s written in the Torah, because it is smaller than the other letters. Aleph, the Midrash tells us, is the first letter of the word ani, I; therefore, if we wish God to call us directly, we must diminish our focus on “I”, and seek to limit our egotism. If we can do that, then we, like Moses, will be able to clearly hear God’s call, to respond, and so to find the holiness that makes up the central subject of the Book of Leviticus. Less of the “I” and more of God. A very nice interpretation indeed.

But there is something rather puzzling about this midrash, as well. If Moses, our great leader, was truly “the humblest man in the world,” just how did he have the ego strength to lead an enormously fractious group of Jews across a Wilderness to the Promised Land, often against their will? How could anyone who was so humble and modest manage to lead such a people through all the trials and tribulations described in the Torah?

Perhaps the secret lies in the inner strength that comes only from faith. Faced with the vicissitudes of life, and the challenges and demands of a world that is far from completion or wholeness, our own arrogance cannot carry us to any Promised Land we seek. But trust in a God who implants within each of us a spark of the divine, a core element of holiness that we can draw upon at times of crisis, can bring us to a better place.

Moses realized that he, himself, was unfit for the task God assigned him. And so, he was indeed humble. But he also knew that the God he believed in and whose mitzvot he followed was infinitely powerful and profoundly holy. If he, a fallible human being, simply placed his confidence and trust in God he would ultimately succeed.

So, too, for us. We can’t really do it alone, however we define “it”. But if we place our faith in God, and know that God can and will help, we may become like Moses: humble, but holy.

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