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The Secret Small Aleph

By Rabbi Jonathan Tawil

There is a story of a US Naval ship travelling on a stormy winter night off the coast of Newfoundland;

The captain on the deck notices a dim green blip that suddenly appears on the radar screen.

Radioing into the Canadian Naval authorities, he says: Please divert your course 20 degrees to the North to avoid a collision.

The Canadians respond: Recommend you divert YOUR course 20 degrees to the South to avoid a collision.

The US captain responds, “This is the Captain of a US Navy ship. I say again, divert YOUR course.”

Canadians retaliate:” No. I say again, you divert YOUR course.”

Eventually getting fed up the US captain states, “THIS IS THE AIRCRAFT CARRIER USS LINCOLN, THE SECOND LARGEST SHIP IN THE UNITED STATES’ ATLANTIC FLEET. WE ARE ACCOMPANIED BY THREE DESTROYERS, THREE CRUISERS AND NUMEROUS SUPPORT VESSELS. I DEMAND THAT YOU CHANGE YOUR COURSE 20 DEGREES NORTH, THAT’S ONE FIVE DEGREES NORTH, OR COUNTER-MEASURES WILL BE UNDERTAKEN TO ENSURE THE SAFETY OF THIS SHIP.

The Canadians take a gasp and say, “This is a lighthouse. Your call…”

A little humility goes a long way.

This week we begin the third book of the Torah Vayikra known as Torat Kohanim – the law of the priests – in rabbinic literature. Most of the book is occupied with the laws of the specific sacrifices and the duties of the Kohanim in the Temple.

The book opens with an interesting encounter that hinted at with the unusual writing of the first word Vayikra.

The last letter of Vayikra — the aleph — is written much smaller than the rest of the word.

Why is the aleph small?

Our Sages explain that when G-d told Moshe to write the word Vayikra “And He called”, Moshe didn’t want to write that last aleph. It seemed to Moshe that it gave him too much importance. How could he write that G-d called to him? Who was he, after all? A mere man. Moshe would have preferred to write Vayikar — “And He happened (upon him).”

In other words G-d just “came across” Moshe, He didn’t “go out of His way” to appear to him.

In spite of Moshe’s protestations, G-d told him to write Vayikra — “And He called”.

Moshe put the aleph at the end of the word as G-d had commanded him — but he wrote it small.

This is a fascinating story, but the sages are confused, don’t we already know that Moshe was humble? Are we not told on numerous occasions in the torah itself that Moshe was humble? Why the necessity to make the aleph small?

The Midrash Tanchuma (Teruma) brings an intriguing encounter.

Rabbi Akiva was once challenged by a Roman General Turnus Rufus.

“Why does your G-d hate us?”

Stated the General, quoting the Pasuk: VeEt Eisav Saneti – I hate Eisav.

Rabbi Akiva seemed startled by the question. If he were to answer what he really thought, the general would kill him. Any false answer would not do justice to the question.

He told Turnus Rufus to return tomorrow and he would have a reply.

The next day Turnus Rufus returned promptly and again asked him the question.

Rabbi Akiva told him that it was interesting seeing him, since that night he had a dream about two dogs. One was called Rufus and the other Rupina.

Turnus Rufus was not impressed.

“How dare you!

You are insinuating that my wife (Rupina) and I are dogs? You will pay with your life”. Exclaimed the General.

Rabbi Akiva stopped the General before the guards would take him away.

“Stop, I don’t understand. Dogs see and you see, dogs walk and you walk. Why are you so upset?”

Rabbi Akiva proceeded with his master plan.

“Look how upset you were when I compared you to a dog, and in actual fact there are many similarities!

G-d Almighty has created the heavens and earth, the vast seas and beautiful lands – how do you think He feels when you prostrate yourself to idols made of wood and stone proclaiming they have created all of this?”

Rabbi Akiva made his point and with that the General moved away. 

Rabbi Shach zts’l once asked on this Midrash. Why is it that Rabbi Akiva didn’t give Turnus Rufus this answer yesterday? Did he not know the answer then and there? Why wait?

Rabbi Shach explained that sometimes in order to portray a message we need to envisage or experience certain things; speech alone would not do justice to the cause.

If Rabbi Akiva would have just turned around and said, “G-d hates you because you worship idols,” it is not certain that Turnus Rufus would have accepted his answer.

Once Rabbi Akiva made him come back the next day and via his ‘dream’ put Turnus Rufus in a personal situation, he was able to explain much better. Hence he waited that extra day to respond. Moreover sometimes speech alone cannot portray a concept. In order to fully comprehend we need to use other means of action as well.

Aleph is unique in the Hebrew alphabet, for it has no sound. The rest of the Hebrew alphabet is consonantal. Each consonant has a sound: Bet is “B”, Mem is “M”. When the vowel markings are added the sounds can be extended: Ba, be, boo, etc. But Aleph is soundless. Only when vowels are added do we hear it – or its absence: ah, eh, oh, oo. Aleph begins the alphabet, but has no sound.

 

Aleph is compared to the voice of G-d. That is, Aleph is the open space, the silence, the pregnant possibility, the soundless inspiration, the in-breath that precedes all human speech. We see the Aleph, we shape it, we read it, but we cannot make its sound.

The opening of our alphabet points us to the mystery from which our ability to speak emerges, giving us pause, making us listen before we begin.

We might already know that Moshe is humble, we might learn this every year, but when we see with our own eyes the small Aleph and we ask into its history, the lesson that it portrays is much more resounding. The simple action of writing a small Aleph depicts this message in a more powerful way.

As we begin the third book of the Torah let us ask Hashem to bless us that we too may portray the characteristics of our fine leader Moshe and succeed in all our endeavours.

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