Size Matters

Double Mitzvah Jewrotica Parsha

Written by Sender Rozesz. Sender Rozesz is a practicing attorney with a background in Jewish pluralistic education for adults. Sender Rozesz is Jewrotica’s resident Double Mitzvah columnist. The views reflected in his writing represent his own personal views, and are not intended to reflect the views of any organizations, institutes or associations with whom he may be affiliated.

This week’s Parshah, Vayikra, marks the first portion of the Book of Leviticus; the book that is most famous in modern-day culture for containing all of the commandments pertaining to our sensual lives. What we may eat. With whom we may have sex. Tattoos. Piercings. In other words, most of the stuff that we care to sin over. These are all in Leviticus.

And this book begins with the word Vayikra – “and He called.”[1]

The larger context is that G-d called to Moses, and directed him to instruct the Jewish people in the laws of animal sacrifices.

But the Parshah is called “Vayikra,” after its first word. This, in and of itself, is somewhat unusual, as few of the Parshiot in Torah are named after a verb – and such a mundane verb at that. There are six in the Book of Genesis, but only two in the Book of Exodus. More often than not, the Parshah is named after the first substantive word in the portion, ignoring introductory verbs.

Of course, verbs that denote G-d communicating with Moses are the most ubiquitous of all.

But there are two unique things about the word Vayikra – “and He called” – that are worth noting.

First, we find that the most common expression for G-d to use throughout the Torah when communication with Moses was Vayedaber – “and He spoke.” Less frequently, but still used, is the word Vayomer – “and He said.”

Rarely does the Torah use the expression of G-d calling to Moses. This anomaly prompted Rashi to note that all communication with Moses was premised upon this “calling,” which is an expression of affection. Indeed, the same expression employed by the ministering angels when addressing each other, as it says, “And one called to the other…”[2]

So Vayikra is an expression of G-d’s affection toward Moses, from which all of the other speakings, sayings and commandments flowed.

In fact, Rashi identifies a fascinating distinction between the words used by the Torah to characterize G-d’s communication with Moses versus the gentile prophets of the nations. “To the prophets of the nations of the world, however, He revealed Himself through expressions denoting coincidence and impurity, as the verse says, “and G-d happened – Vayikar (וַיִּקָּר) – upon Balaam.”[3] The expression “happening” is also used to describe an impure nocturnal emission.[4]

Significantly, the difference between Vayikra (וַיִּקְרָ֖א) and Vayikar (וַיִּקָּר), is only the letter Aleph (א) present at the end of Vayikra, but absent in Vayikar. Thus, it is the addition of that Aleph that transform a word connoting an almost reluctant communication into an affection one.

Let’s talk about that Aleph.

There are many laws associated with the appearance of the words and letter of the Torah in a Torah scroll. While there is no mandatory font size – a tiny Torah scroll that is properly written is just as kosher as a large one – there is a requirement that that the size of the letters be uniform throughout the Torah scroll.

Except for a few select letters.

The word Vayikra – just the one in our Parshah – is written with a small Aleph, almost like a superscript font.


The common explanation is that Moses wrote this Aleph smaller than the other letters, out of his intense humility.[5] Although he was the individual chosen to directly communicate with G‑d throughout the 40 years of his leadership, he minimized the significance of this by writing the word as though it said Vayikar.[6]

This explanation is somewhat counterintuitive, inasmuch as G-d is clearly trying to show Moses affection by using the expression Vayikra instead of Vayikar — and Moses is rebuffing this gesture by trying to write Vayikar?

However, this message of the small Aleph was elaborated upon in the context of a story about Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Lubavitch, the grandson of R’ Schneur Zalman of Liadi, the author of the Book of Tanya. When he was a little boy, he attended cheder for the first time, and his first lesson began with the opening verse of Vayikra.

Later, when he returned home, he asked his grandfather, “Zeidi, why is the word Vayikra written with a little Aleph?”

R’ Schneur Zalman explained as follows:

In the letters of the Torah, G‑d instructed that there be three sizes: midsized letters, oversized letters and miniature letters. As a rule, the Torah is written with midsized letters.

The first man, Adam, was described as ‘the handiwork of G‑d,’ whose wisdom was even greater than that of the angels. However, Adam was very conscious, not only of his abilities and faculties, but also of his own relative greatness. It was this awareness of his greatness relative to other creatures that caused him to overestimate himself, which made him vulnerable to the evil inclination, and led to his downfall in the sin of the Tree of Knowledge.

In Chronicles, Adam’s name is spelled with an oversized Aleph, because his self-awareness of his greatness led to his downfall.

Moses too was aware of his own strengths and abilities. However, when he measured himself against other creatures, his self-awareness simply increased his humility and his sense of insufficiency. He took stock of the gifts that G-d had given him, and imagined that had those same gifts been given to someone else, that person would surely have achieved much more.

Moses’ humility is expressed in the miniature Aleph of Vayikra.

Self-awareness is an important virtue. We need to know our strengths and weaknesses: our strengths, so that we can we can fully utilize them, maximize our potential, and not go through life avoiding or oblivious to our purpose; and our weaknesses, so that we can compensate for them, or overcome them entirely.

However, our particular strengths and weaknesses have nothing to do with our inherent value as human beings, or our belonging to the Jewish people. They simply reflect our unique configuration, customized to our particular purpose in this world.

An inflated sense of self inexorably leads to a detachment from the reality of our position in the universe; a disconnect that erodes our sense of right and wrong, and our sense of responsibility to G-d, our nation, our community. Conversely, a lack of self-esteem and a disproportionate focus on our weaknesses erodes our sense of belonging and worthiness, which also leads to an abandonment of our better judgment. Sin results from an imbalance in our self-awareness.

So not a big Aleph, and not no Aleph at all. Rather, a miniature Aleph, symbolizing a a healthy balance and perspective in which we recognize our strengths, but are also aware of our weaknesses, and are cognizant that each of us is an important and unique part of a greater whole.

Shabbat shalom!

[1] Leviticus, 1:1.

[2] Isaiah, 6:3.

[3] Numbers, 23:4.

[4] Deuteronomy, 23:11.

[5] See Numbers, 12:3.

[6] See Baal HaTurim.