Vayikra’s lesson in retaining humility while studying Torah

BY RABBI JOSEF A. DAVIDSON

Vayikra, the name of this week’s Torah portion and the name of the entire book of Leviticus with which it begins, is always written in a very strange manner in every Torah scroll that has been, is or will be in existence.

The last of the four consonants which spell the word, Vayikra, the alef, is written in a manner that is different from the others. It is written small, almost as if it were a superscript to the word, Vayikar, which can mean either that “[he] happened [by accident]” or that “[he] had an impurity, a negative charge, which rendered him unsuitable for participation in the services of the Tabernacle/Tent of Meeting/Temple.”

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With the alef, Vayikra means “[he] called.”

The 16th century commentator, the Kli Yakar (Rabbi Shlomoh Efrayim of Luntchitz), brings a meaning to this scribal oddity, which can speak to us today. He teaches that the alef in this word stands for one of the Hebrew verbs meaning “to learn” or “to teach” and is a hint that one’s study of Torah will not sustain itself unless one makes oneself small. So it is that the text hints that Moses made himself small and fled from high office, saying, “I am not a man of words.” (Exodus 4:9)

What does this mean to us today? It means that the study of Torah, if it is to be effective, if it is to be sustained, if it is to affect our lives in a positive manner and encourage the best within us, must be approached from a position of humility. Arrogance has no place in the study or in the teaching of Torah, nor does using the Torah as a means of subjugating or humiliating others.

We have learned elsewhere that through the study of Torah we find multiple meanings for each text we read. Each time we read a particular text, it can speak to us in a different way, if we but approach it with a sense of humility and wide-eyed wonder. Any particular text does not have one right meaning and a multitude of wrong meanings.

Rather, the rabbinic ideal has always been the pursuit of meaning through the experience which each brings to a particular text. The Kli Yakar suggests at least three different interpretations to the small alef in this week’s parashah!

One of these even favorably compares Balaam to Moses! The great commentators, the great midrashists all took great delight in drawing on their experience as they played with the texts, turning them on their sides, if need be, to find new meaning and to teach new and valuable lessons to their contemporaries as well as to us.

Perhaps this is how God calls to all of us. When we approach the texts we read without arrogance, without a preconceived notion of what we are going to find contained within them, then perhaps that is God calling to each student of Torah, no matter the era, no matter the century in which s/he lives.

The late Rabbi Solomon Schechter is often quoted as saying, “When I pray, I speak to God. When I study, God speaks to me.”

Finding God in the sacred texts of our tradition is no accident; it does not just happen. Rather, we find God when we approach our sacred texts with the eyes of a child — with the child’s enthusiasm for learning, rather than with hubris of an adult who feels as if s/he has nothing new to learn.

When we make ourselves small rather than seeking to aggrandize ourselves, when we approach texts with humility, learning sustains us and is sustained.

Rabbi Josef A. Davidson is Adjunct Rabbi with Congregation B’nai Amoona and a member of the St. Louis Rabinical Association.