This Shabbat, we started the third book of the Torah, the Book of Leviticus / Vayikra. This is a challenging book. Not only does it include dry long sections of laws about sacrifices, most of which has not been directly relevant to our daily lives since the destruction of the Second Temple two thousand years ago, but it also includes some of the most troubling texts in the Torah, including that which has been used to justify homophobia and oppress gay and queer people.
The parsha begins: “Vayikra”, which means “called”, and in the context of this sentence, means “and God called”. Vayikra is written vav, yud, kuf, reish, and then a small aleph, written separate to the main word. In the Torah scroll, there are certain letters that written bigger, or smaller. There is a strong tradition in Torah study of working along the assumption that nothing in the Torah is accidental, and everything is steeped in rich meaning. This is true for the size of the letters just as much the meaning. The aleph in Vayikra, the last letter, is one such letter – it is always written small and separate to the main word of Vayikra.
I love this little aleph, and we have gone through a bit of a journey with the aleph from Vayikra in Kehillah over the years. Two years ago – and it feels like a long time ago! – we held an inauguration/induction shabbat for Cantor Tamara, and we learnt about how the aleph might represent different leadership qualities in our own Rabbi or Cantor, which is a role that is deeply embedded but also somewhat separate from the rest of the community, just as this little aleph is in the text.
One year ago, we were going into our first national lockdown, we looked at the aleph as separate, small, and distanced from the rest of the text, but also, of course, surrounded by Torah text, and thought about how this might apply to the lockdown – perhaps representing the need to be separate and distanced, but also remain connected with our community, just like this small aleph on the end of the word Vayikra.
So what do we make of this aleph today, on this year, on the beginning of this most difficult of books?
Well, first of all, it is important to take a step back and recognise the sheer miracle of this small Aleph staring right at us. Bereishit/Genesis might be about the creation of the world, and packed with narrative about miraculous wonders, and Shemot/Exodus, may be about the dramatic story of our liberation from Egypt, with the telling of many of the signs of wonder. But here, at the beginning of Vayikra, on the very first word, we have this little Aleph jumping out at us from the Torah scroll. That every single Torah scroll in the world, regardless of the nature of the community – whether in Jamaica, China, or Stoke Newington – any community you could care to mention – has this same aleph written out in small, hand written by a sofer/scribe – is nothing short of miraculous. This is a miracle as impressive as any separation of seas, and it is right here with us.
Jewish mythology also states that, when the Torah was given on Sinai, it was given complete – with the font with the beautiful crowns on the letters [do have a look at our Torah scroll when you next get the chance] and with the Aleph in Vayikra written small and separate. There is a midrash[i] that when Moses wrote down the word Vayikra – “and God called” – which uses the same word, to call, as is used when angels gather each other to communicate with one another, that he felt too humble to take on this task and be called upon in the same way that angels are, and so wrote the Aleph separately to the rest of the word in order to change the meaning. This meant that the word read “vayekar” “it was cold”, rather than Vayikra. The midrash explains that perhaps this was to suggest that Moses’s anxiety at his task was cooling down …. Or perhaps [my interpretation!] it is a coded message from Moses that it is quite cold up there on the mountain!
Either way, whether the Midrash is speaking to Moses’s anxiety, or to [my preferred interpretation] his poor preparation with a lack of warm clothes, I think there is an important message here. Right at the start of this most difficult of books, Moses took it upon himself to see the words differently, to adapt their writing, and to change their meaning. Perhaps this is an invitation, that goes right to the core of our tradition, back to Sinai, to play with, interpret, and adapt our text to suit our needs as they are today.
Much of the book of Leviticus is about the practical details of what was involved in the practice of sacrifices. We have read about our creation and liberation stories in Genesis and Exodus, and now we have to get down to the hard work of actually building and maintaining our society and our spiritual practice. Maybe this little Aleph, set apart from the text, is an invitation to take a step back and take a look, and really reflect on what has come before us, and what we are connected with, before we get on with the hard Levitical tasks that we need to do to achieve our goals.
However, we can try to take a step back and really look at, and examine, what is happening in the world around us, but just like this Aleph, we are still deeply interconnected with each and the world. We can’t examine just as dispassionate observers. We can’t depart our own page, our own Torah, our own world – we are part of it.
Just like this Aleph, we have all, to different degrees, made attempts at isolating ourselves, and remaining connected over the last year. But we cannot depart the page. And just like this Aleph, which is surrounded by the Book of Leviticus, which contains example of texts and laws that have justified and perpetrated homophobia and discrimination against women, we know that we have to fight against this. Perhaps the events of the last two weeks, the terrible murder, the attempts to restrict protest, the brutality, is a painful reminder – as if we needed it! – of the need to continue these struggles.
We have a choice, just like that Aleph. We can stay cool and distant. Seperated, examining the world around us dispassionately. Or we can unite with the word Vayikra, hear that call, and head straight on through Leviticus, and do what we can to understand the structural discrimination around us, and do what we can to dismantle it.
[i] R Isser’l, cited in Tzenah Urenah