Parshas Vayikra – The Little Aleph That Could

“What should a person do to live? He should kill himself! And what should a person do to die? He should enliven himself!”

This enigmatic Talmudic passage begs for interpretation. Life is death and death is life? Were the Rabbis giving suicide advice or encouraging a morbid or nihilistic outlook on life, G-d forbid?

Of course not. As they frequently did, the Rabbis were speaking in riddle and rhetoric as a tool to impart fundamentally important lessons.  Centuries before Dale Carnegie, they were teaching that in order to truly make friends and live a life of influence, one needs to “kill himself,” meaning one should kill his or her self-absorption and narcissism. A guaranteed  way to be the most popular person in the room is to take an interest in others, and a guaranteed way to have people hide when you walk in is to “enliven” the self – acting as though you are the center of the universe.  Regarding “one who seeks prominence,” the Rabbis teach that true prominence is certain to be forever elusive, while those who run from fame are bound to achieve it.

Really, this is a far more profound matter than merely making friends, influencing people, and achieving fame. It is about making peace with ourselves and our souls, and being great in the eyes of our Creator. Haughtiness is both a symptom and a cause of an unhealthy soul; true humility is both a sign of a self-confidently healthy soul and the secret to achieving one.

At the beginning of this week’s Torah portion, G-d calls to Moshe using unique language that expresses G-d’s love for him. Moshe recoils from recording this unique relationship in the Torah, and begs G-d to allow him to record the word “Vayikra,” which represents this love, without the final letter aleph, thereby changing the meaning of the word to conceal this unique relationship. G-d allows a compromise, and for all time the aleph is recorded in miniature font, making Moshe’s special relationship with G-d less noticeable.

Interestingly, at the beginning of the biblical book of Chronicles, another aleph is recorded in a unique font: The first letter of the name “Adam” is printed unusually large. The kabbalists teach us that this represents the idea mentioned above – Adam, who was created by G-d Himself as the pinnacle of creation, felt a twinge of haughtiness (represented by the large aleph), and within a number of hours fell from his lofty stature. Moshe’s small aleph (representing his humility) ultimately achieved the opposite of what he intended. It remains an eternal testament to his greatness and the levels achieved by the one who runs from honor – “There was never another like him,” G-d Himself exclaims.

So when reading this week’s Torah portion, take note of the “little aleph that could,” a metaphor for the paradox of life – those who, like the small aleph, don’t take up much “space,” achieve inner peace and achievement, while the self-aggrandizers ultimately fall from the very heights that they strive so hard to attain for themselves.

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