Posted on March 19, 2021 by Rabbi Arnold S. Gluck
The Book of Leviticus opens with a curious scribal anomaly. The letter alef at the end of the first word, vayikra, is tiny. It probably began as a scribal error, but it was embraced as a “tradition” by our rabbis, who taught that Moses himself wrote it this way when he received the Torah at Sinai. He did so as an expression of humility, said our sages. As my colleague Rabbi Gil Nativ noted in a commentary on Vayikra, alef is the first letter of the word ani, the first-person pronoun “I.” So in shrinking the alef, Moses was minimizing his ego and reducing his own self-importance.
Moses, who stood up to Pharaoh and stood before God, was arguably one of the greatest people who ever lived. Our tradition is effusive in extolling his virtues. In the hymn Ein Adir we say, “…there was none as blessed… none as pious… none as singular… none as righteous as Moses.” We are also told in Torah that “…the man Moses was very humble, more than any person on the face of the earth.” (Numbers 12:3)
It may seem to be a contradiction that a person can be both so great and so humble at the same time, but it is not. As our tradition understands it, the measure of true greatness is that one knows one’s place and occupies it fully while leaving space for others. Humility, according to the masters of Mussar, is not the opposite of arrogance, it is the midpoint between self-negation and egotism. This may best be illustrated by the example of the students of Rabbi Hillel.
We are told that the students of Rabbi Hillel and the students of Rabbi Shammai argued a point of law for three years, each claiming that they were right. Finally, a heavenly voice came forth and declared: “These and these are both the words of God, but the law agrees with the House of Hillel.” “Since both are the words of God,” asks the Talmud, “why does the law follow the rulings of Beit Hillel? Because the followers of Hillel were kindly and modest. They studied the teachings of Beit Shammai, and even mentioned their rulings before offering their own.” “This teaches you,” concludes the Talmud, “that those who humble themselves, the Holy Blessed One raises up, and those who exalt themselves, the Holy Blessed One humbles.” (Talmud Bavli Eruvin 13b)
We are living in a time when the arrogance of many has laid us all low. The “I” of the ego has led too many of our fellow citizens to think only of themselves and their desires, and it has cost us dearly. How many people have we lost to the pandemic who didn’t have to die? How many lives would have been saved if we had all given thought to the wellbeing of others? Tragically, we cannot bring back the dead, but it is not too late to have a collective change of heart – to make our alef small so that others may live.
It is time for us to follow the example of Moses and the House of Hillel, to reduce our “me” to serve the needs of the collective “we.” It is time to put aside fears and concerns and get vaccinated at the earliest possible moment. It is time to remain extra-vigilant about wearing masks and maintaining distance in public spaces. It is time to embrace the teaching of the prophet Micah, who said: “It has been told you, O Man, what is good and what the Eternal your God demands of you: only to do justice and lovingkindness, and to walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6:8)
Rabbi Arnie Gluck