THE WEE ALEF
Many years ago, when I began to learn Chumash in Grade 1, the custom in the school where I learned was – as per the time-honored heder tradition – to begin the study of Bible with Parashat Vayikra. Many reasons were given for this practice. Among them, following the Midrash Tanchuma, (91:14):
“Said Rabbi Assya: Why do the children begin their study with the Book of Vayikra?
It is because all the offerings appear in VAYIKRA, and because the little children are pure, and they have not tasted sin and wrongdoing. Therefore The Holy One, Blessed Be He, said that they should first begin with the order of the offerings: Let the pure ones come and study pure matters, and therefore I reckon as if they stand and offer the sacrifices before Me, and I inform you that even though the Temple was destroyed, and offerings are not brought, were it not for children who study the order of the sacrifices, the world could not exist.”
The commencement of study was a festive and ceremonial affair, to which the rabbi and communal leaders were invited. Among other subjects discussed on this joyful and touching occasion was the written tradition with which we are all familiar: The letter aleph at the end of the word Vayikra is diminutive; in the Masorah, the tradition of Biblical inscription, it is called ‘aleph zeira’ – ‘little aleph’.
Now, fifty years later, I would like to consider afresh this unique phenomenon. I do not intend, within the framework of this d’var Torah, to conduct an extensive survey of the enlarged and diminished letters in the Torah and the Bible as laid down by the Masorah. I do wish to relate, in homiletic fashion, to the possible significance of this diminution, following in the footsteps of some of the commentators who dealt with this phenomenon.
Rabbi Yaakov ben Asher, author of the commentary “Baal HaTurim” (and author of “The Four Turim”), presents the familiar inscription as a compromise between Moshe’s will and that of The Holy One, Blessed Be He:
“The aleph of Vayikra is diminutive because Moshe wanted to write only “Vayiker’ (‘encountered’, as though by chance) as is written in the story of Bil'am, as though God appeared to him by accident. God, however, directed him to write ‘Vayikra’ – with an aleph. Moshe wrote the aleph – but undersized it.’
Rabbi Efrayim of Lunshitz, in his commentary “Kli Yakar”, takes in a similar approach, but he does not present the text as a compromise between the will of Moshe and that of God; it is rather a carefully directed message, designed to compare Bil'am’s prophecy with that of Moshe – at least in certain aspects:
“The ‘aleph’ of ‘Vayikra’ is diminutive, as if it were written “Vayiker" – ‘encountered by chance’. This is intended to compare the prophecy of Moshe to the prophecy of Bil’am (“Now God did encounter Bil’am”), as is written, “There arose no further prophet in Israel like Moshe” – but among the nations there did arise one, and who was that? Bil’am. The meaning of this is not that Bil’am was Moshe’s equal in prophecy, God forbid, but this is the explanation: Moshe perceived more that his preparation had prepared him for, as is written “who was known by God” but it does not say “who knew God”, meaning that he did not know God beyond his personal capability, but God knew him and granted him additional abundance in Israel, meaning to say “in Israel’s merit”. None of Israel’s other prophets perceived beyond their abilities. But among the nations of the world there did arise one – for the honor of Israel – who did perceive more than his character entitled him to . . . this teaches us that the two were equal in that both had additional, unplanned perception, in addition to what their personalities entitled them.”
True, according to the logic of the above, the text should have read “Vayiker”, without the aleph”, but “Vayiker” has the connotation not only of something temporary, coincidental; it also has the connotation of impurity, and therefore an “aleph” - a wee aleph – was added on.
It is interesting to examine the Midrashic tradition (Midrash Rabba Parasha 14, beginning with “ub’vo Moshe)” which contrasts Moshe’s prophecy with that of Bil’am:
‘”When Moshe would come to the Tent of Appointment to speak with Him.’ It is taught ‘There arose no further prophet in Israel like Moshe’ – in Israel there arose no prophet the equal of Moshe, but among the nations there did arise one. This was so that the nations of the world should have no excuse, saying ‘If we had a prophet like Moshe, we too would have worshipped The Holy One, Blessed Be He.’ And what prophet did they have who was the equal of Moshe? This was Bil’am ben Be’or. There was, however, a difference between the prophecy of Moshe and that of Bil’am. Moshe possessed three qualities, which Bil’am lacked:
- He would speak with Him standing, as is written, “And you stand here with Me and I will talk to you’; but He would speak to Bil’am only when Bil’am was prostrate, as is written, ‘Bowed, but with eyes uncovered’.
- Moshe would speak with Him mouth to mouth, as is written ‘Mouth to mouth, etc’, but with Bil’am, ‘Utters the hearer of Godly sayings’ – he did not speak to Him mouth to mouth.
- Moshe spoke with Him face to face, as is written ‘And God spoke to Moshe face to face”; to Bil’am He spoke only through parables, as is said, ‘He took up his parable and said.’
Bil’am had three qualities that Moshe lacked:
- Moshe knew not who spoke to him, but Bil’am knew who spoke to him, as is written, ‘Utters the hearer of Godly saying who envisages a vision of Shaddai’.
- Moshe did not know when God spoke to him; Bil’am knew when The Holy One, Blessed Be He, spoke to him, as is written, ‘Who knows the knowledge of the Most High’. A parable was spun: A king’s cook knows what is on the king’s table and how much the king spends on his table. So did Bil’am know what The Holy One, Blessed Be He, was going to say to him.
- Bil’am would speak with Him whenever he so desired, as is written, ‘Bowed, but with eyes uncovered’ – he would fall on his face and immediately his eyes would be uncovered in respect to his request; Moshe did not speak with Him whenever he pleased.
- Rabbi Shim’on said: Moshe, too, would speak with Him whenever he wished, as is written ‘And when Moshe would enter the Tent of Appointment to speak with him’ - he would immediately hear the voice speaking to him.”
In the Yalkut Shimoni (V’Zot Ha-beracha 247:966), we find a somewhat different presentation of the comparison:
“There arose no further prophet in Israel like Moshe’ – in Israel there arose no prophet the equal of Moshe, but among the nations there did arise one. And who was that? Bil’am the son of Be’or. But there are differences between the prophecy of Moshe and the prophecy of Bil’am son of Be’or:
- Moshe did not know who was speaking with him; Bil’am knew who was speaking with him, as is written, ‘utters the hearer of godly sayings’.
- Moshe did not know when God would speak with him before He spoke; Bil’am knew when God would speak to him, as is written, ‘Who knows the knowledge of the Most High’.
- Moshe did not speak with Him unless he was standing, as is written, ‘And you stand here with Me’; Bil’am spoke with Him while prostrate, as is written, ‘Envisages a vision of Shaddai, bowed, but with eyes uncovered’. This may be compared to a king’s cook who knows how much the king spends on his table.”
In Midrash Rabba, separation is made between those characteristics which make Moshe’s prophecy superior – although here too the Midrash does not ignore elements of Bil’am’s prophecy which make it the more important. In contrast to this, the comparison drawn by the Yalkut Shimoni tips the scales in favor of Bil’am.
The tension between the prophecy of Moshe and that of Bil’am appears to be the background for the Rashi’s commentary on Vayikra 1:1 – although there is no explicit reference to the diminutive aleph:
“And He called to Moshe” – All statements and all declarations and all commandments were preceded by a call, a term of affection, the idiom used with reference to the angels, as is written (Isaiah 6:3) ‘And they called one to the other’; but to the prophets of the nations of the world He reveals Himself with expressions connoting the temporary and the impure, as is written, ‘Now God did encounter Bil’am’.
Rashi contrasts “Vayikra” to “Vayiker” – without overt reference to the Masorah.
In my opinion, the diminutive aleph opens an interesting window through which we can observe the difference between the prophecy of Moshe, the greatest of all Israel’s prophets (“There arose no further prophet in Israel like Moshe’) and the prophecy of Bil’am, greatest of non-Israelite prophets, and perhaps, via these two prophets, we can discern the difference between Israel and the nations.
In Midrash Rabba the (almost) equal opportunity given Bil’am is presented as an opportunity given the nations of the world “so that they have no excuse” – but priority is given by The Holy One, Blessed Be He, to Moshe. In the Yalkut, however, Bil’am is presented as having a qualitative starting edge over Moshe.
The Baal Ha’Turim paints a Moshe as a humble man who does not see himself intrinsically any better than Bil’am, but The Holy One, Blessed Be He, grants him an advantage, and the ‘compromise” (diminutive aleph) is a result of dialogue between The Holy One, Blessed Be He, and Moshe.
The author of the Kli Yakar presents the two as equals in terms of basic God-given attributes; Moshe reaches a higher plane through his own efforts, not through divine favoritism.
It seems to me that these approaches parallel the differences between those who see the concept “Chosen People” as an innate trait, a kind of divine grace -- and those who believe in the basic and intrinsic equality of all men created in His image. The election of the Jewish people, according to this approach is first and foremost an opportunity and a challenge – a little aleph, but great responsibility.