In this week’s Torah Portion, we begin the Book of Leviticus. This book of the Torah is basically a dense corpus of commandments, many of which are designed to guide our daily behaviors. When reading this book from an actual Torah scroll, the eye is immediately drawn to the fact that the final letter in this first word of Leviticus (Vayikra) is a tiny ALEF (See image above). This tiny ALEF happens to be the smallest letter in the entire Torah, and the custom invites interpretation.
While there are many explanations regarding this textual anomaly, the miniature ALEF seems to suggest that ancient scribes were trying to teach us a lesson regarding the ego. ALEF happens to be the first letter in the Hebrew word for “I” – “ANI,” and so the sages suggest that this may be the Torah’s way of suggesting that we should posture ourselves with humility and respect before the law as we begin to read the section of the Torah that is focused on a corpus of commandments.
During this week, when strict measures have been asked of us by the government to help curb the spread of COVID-19, our Torah portion provides us with an extremely important message. There are times when we need to shrink the ego for a greater good.
In his book, Man’s Quest for God, the great Jewish thinker Abraham Joshua Heschel teaches a powerful lesson regarding sacrifice. He argues that even though our spiritual practices today may differ greatly from those of our ancestors who brought offerings to God at the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, it is incumbent upon us to continue to understand what we do today through a lens of personal sacrifice. According to Heschel, as we engage in modern day sacrificial acts such as prayer and self-denial, our efforts represent a concrete attempt to “. . . try to surrender our vanities, to burn our insolence, to abandon our bias, dishonesty and envy.”
In light of the what is being asked of us by our government today, the Shrunken ALEF found in the Torah and Heschel’s teachings regarding sacrifice can serve to broaden the meaning of the inconveniences we are currently experiencing. Our personal sacrifices in the days and weeks to come may demand a shift in our ego-centric worlds, but they can serve to remind us of the value and importance of giving, sharing and living together in a society that cares for each other.