In difficult times and in times of great joy, Jews gather around the stories of the Torah and understand that these stories help define us, these stories help us understand the world around us, and these stories provide us with the lens through which we view everything that happens in our lives. Individual Jews, of course, can abandon the Torah, but the Jewish people hold on to Jewish tradition — “Torah” in the larger sense — because it is in many ways our natural habitat. And as the Jewish story teaches us, if we cannot survive in our natural habitat, then how could we ever hope to survive outside it?
It is with those ideas in mind that I think about our Torah reading this week, Parashat Vayikra, the first Torah reading of the book of Vayikra (Leviticus), and the covid-19 virus that continues to cause tremendous damage all over the world. The very first words of the Torah reading are “The Lord called to Moses and spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting.” Some of us might know that there is a scribal tradition that the final letter (an aleph) in the first word of the Torah reading (Vayikra, which means “The Lord called”) is written in smaller letters in the Torah scroll than the rest of the word is. Why is this, and what could this 2,000-year-old tradition possibly have to teach us today as we deal with a global pandemic?
One explanation, from the Ba’al HaTurim (14th century Spain), is that the aleph is written smaller than the rest of the letters in the first word because when Moshe was taking God’s dictation and writing the Torah, he was upset at the idea that someone might think that he thought he was important enough that God actually planned a conversation with him. Instead, Moses wanted to leave off the aleph, and thereby change the word from “Vayikra” to “Vayikar,” altering the meaning from “The Lord called to Moses” to “The Lord had a chance encounter with Moses.”
In other words, Moses was being very humble and did not want to seem too important.
This traditional understanding is beautiful. It gives us a window into Moses’ soul, a window into attempting to understand not only who Moses was when no one was watching him, but who Moses aspired to be, and how he wanted to be remembered by future generations.
There is, however, another way to understand this small aleph. Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, the former chief rabbi of Great Britain, points out that the letter in question, aleph, is not only the last letter in the word Vayikra, but it is also the first letter in the Hebrew alphabet, and the first letter of the Ten Commandments. That first letter in the Ten Commandments, the first letter of the word “Anochi,” introduces God’s statement about God’s presence in the world (“I am the Lord your God”).
Maybe, Rabbi Sacks teaches, the aleph is written extra small to emphasize that God’s presence is not always felt in big, grand gestures, like the splitting of the Red Sea. Sometimes, God’s presence is felt in the quiet gestures, and in the day-to-day tasks that take up the vast majority of our lives, but never gets the attention that those rare and yet dramatic moments like the splitting of the sea get.
Perhaps the aleph is small to teach us to look out for those small moments. Maybe it’s there to teach us that, to paraphrase the idiom about actors and the roles they inhabit, there actually are no small moments in life. There only are moments that we miss the opportunity to see God’s presence within.
Now let’s go from a small aleph in a Torah scroll, a scroll that few if any of us will get to see this Shabbat because of the global pandemic, to the situation raging around us. For me, and I believe for many of you as well, God’s presence in this situation is felt in the small gestures that do not make the news, the moments that enrich one person’s life at no cost to your own, the gesture that makes a difference and that a person never will forget.
The challenge, of course, is to realize that those gestures and moments are up to each one of us. They aren’t created on their own. For every cancelled date and dinner party, make phone calls and send emails to the people you would have seen. Connect in ways that you might not have done before. Create moments of beauty and serenity where none existed before. Not because most of us will have a hand in curing this global pandemic. But because by making these gestures, moment after moment and day after day, we all will help make living through this dark period not only a question of survival, but a testament to the human spirit and our ability to rise above what has been placed before us.
May we all find the strength and resolve to take on this challenge.