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Vayikra 2022

Rabbi Robin Nafshi

This week we begin a new book of the Torah – Leviticus, called Vayikra in Hebrew. The parasha – Torah portion – is also called Vayikra, and both the book of Torah and the parasha are named for the first key word in the first verse. In this case, it happens to be the first word.

There’s a real oddity to the word as it appears in every Torah scroll ever written. The last Hebrew letter, an aleph, is much small than the other letters in the Torah. Now, the ancient Rabbis tell us that everything in the Torah has meaning. And so they ask – what is the meaning of the small aleph at the end of the word vayikra?

Vayikra means “to call out.” The verse reads, Vayikra el mosheh vayidabeir adonai eilav me-ohel mo-eid, leimor – “The Eternal One called out to Moses at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, saying …” What follows isn’t important for this discussion.

Because the final aleph is small, what would the word and verse mean if we take away the little aleph? The the remaining word has two possible meanings – “happened,” from the word karah or “dear,” from the word yakir.

The classical biblical commentators prefer karah or “happened,” and they believe that the small aleph reflects the modesty of Moses. Moses had wanted to write vayikar – without the aleph, meaning that God “happened” upon him, as if by accident.

But God instructed Moses to write vayikra – with the aleph, because God “called” directly to Moses. In his modesty, Moses wrote vayikra, but made the aleph smaller than the other letters.

One midrash suggests that the aleph is short for the word Elohim – meaning God – and read first few words as vayakir elohim el moshe. They translate those words to mean that God had to become yakir or “dear” to Moses before Moses could hear God calling him.

Elohim is only one possible word that the aleph might represent. Many other Hebrew words begin with the letter aleph; so what else might this verse mean?

Well, here are two others words that begin with an aleph: First is the word echad, or one. Think of the final words of the Sh’ma – Adonai Echad, God is one. And one can refer not only to God, but also to us. The second word, Adam, the word for human, also begins with an aleph.

Two years ago, COVID began when it entered one person. People, being social creatures, enjoy contact with one another. This one person went about his life, interacting with family, friends and co-workers, innocently passing fellow travelers and commuters – because humanity is deeply interconnected.

The virus began to spread. From China it seemed to head to Italy, and from there, across the world. Every ONE who has been infected and who will be in the future is still an individual, a being of infinite worth, a creation of the Divine. We must never reduce a person to a number. Judaism has a tradition of never counting people so as to not take away their humanity by treating them as an expendable number.

Two years ago around this time, 133,000 people had been infected world-wide. That was a time when we didn’t have enough tests to administer to people with the symptoms, and at least 30% of the test results were coming back as false negatives, so the number was probably higher. But could we have imagined then – when we emphasized washing our hands constantly and thought we’d be back to “normal” in a matter of weeks or months – that two years later, 453 million people would be infected (over 79 million from the U.S. alone) and 6.3 million would have died, close to 1 million of those alone from our country?

As I consider this, I think of another word that begins with an aleph, the word eish, which means “fire.” “Maybe the small aleph in Vayikra is a reference back to God calling to Moses from the burning bush.” Perhaps Moses needs a reminder of that awesome moment, and that God with whom he has become very close is also a God for whom he still must keep some degree of distance.

What a lesson for us, as we enter a time of looser restrictions in most places. I am still one of the few who masks in public places. I’ve been discussing with my doctor when I should get a fourth shot. And yes, I still social distance with people.

The story of Moses at the burning bush learning about distance reminds me of a Talmudic tale. It talks about four ancient Rabbis who enter Paradise in order to be close to God. One dies, one loses his mind, one leaves Judaism, and only the fourth gets out unscathed. Trying to get too close to God is like playing with fire.

Fire, eish, is all around us. A fire that spreads, maybe is contained in parts, and then begins to spread again, like a virus. For two years, we lived with fear, loneliness, isolation, and so much more. Moses did, too. And yet, for Moses, there was holiness in the fire.

I am not suggesting that there is holiness in COVID; and certainly, the families of the more than six million who died would not call the virus holy. But for the past years, we have seen so much holiness in response to the virus: Those who delivered food to people who could not leave their homes; who sent messages of love and support to medical personnel; who baked cookies to deliver to hospital employees; who made masks to add a layer of support to the much over-used medical masks; and who made masks for ordinary people yearning to be safe; who created and joined online prayer circles; who provided free, professional telephone spiritual and emotional support to those in need; and so much more.

Yes, eish, the fire burns all around us. But look deeply for the beauty in the fire: Colors – yellows, reds, blues, and oranges; sounds that crackle; the smells of different wood fragrances; light, light, and more light. The sun is fire; the night stars are fire. Fire is within us – a passion to love more deeply, to care with even greater compassion, and to fight for those who cannot fight for themselves.

A final word that begins with an aleph is aleihem, meaning “to them all.” It has virtually the same letters as Elohim, God’s name. So maybe the small aleph in Vayikra means that God called to all of them, as God has been  calling to all of us, especially these past two years.

If we look at Elohim and aleihem more closely, not only might God be calling to them all, but perhaps all of them are found in God. The phrase b’tzelem Elohim, “in the image of God” can also mean that God is in the image of us.

As we emerge from two years of illness, fear, isolation, loneliness, sadness, and so much more – Vayikra, echad, adam, eish, eleihem, and Elohim – we know that God calls to us, God is with us, we are a part of God, we are a part of each other, and we need and depend on one another, now and forever more.

Shabbat shalom.

Thu, February 29 2024 20 Adar I 5784