The Tiny Aleph Calls us to Recognize our Privilege
This week’s parashah, Vayikra, contains a famously small letter that has generated rich commentary throughout the ages, and has enormous meaning for our time. The letter is the aleph at the end of the first word of the parashah, Vayikra, “And God called.” (Leviticus 1:1)
In the Torah scroll, the silent aleph at the end of the word is written in very small type, much smaller than the rest of the letters in the Torah. Of course, the commentators ask why.
Hasidic commentators, in particular, take the tiny aleph to be a message about Moses’ humility, an indication that Moses was modest about his special ability to receive direct communication from God. So, too, each of us is to practice the trait of humility (a profoundly counter-cultural message in our time).
Rabbi Bunam of Peshischa (1765-1827) emphasized that Moses could rightly have been proud of his relationship with God, given his ability to “step behind the curtain” together with God. On the contrary, Rabbi Bunam deduces from this text that Moses did not enter the Divine Presence until he was “called,” and even when he was called, he made himself small, holding himself with humility in the Presence of the Divine.
Rabbi Bunam continues, saying that although Moses had reached an extraordinarily high spiritual level, he did not become arrogant or self-important about it, maintaining a humble demeanor. (Remember that we read in Numbers 12:3 that Moses was the most humble person on the face of the Earth.) Rabbi Bunam suggests that this is like a person who stands on a mountain peak. If they stood on flat ground, they would be no higher than anyone else. It is only because of the gifts given to them by God that they are privileged to stand at such a high level (cited in Itturei Torah, volume 4, page 7).
I treasure our tradition’s many teachings about humility, which stand in stark contrast to a culture in which arrogance is often seen as an expression of strength and skill, while humility is seen as a sign of weakness and lesser ability. Our culture constantly communicates that we should “put ourselves out there,” work to get ahead, regardless of the cost to others, and proclaim our skills to all who may hear. In this context, humility is often seen as incompetence and inadequacy.
My colleague Alan Morinis, a leader in the revival of Mussar practice in our time, writes that authentic humility is in no way related to humiliation or low self-esteem.
True humility, he writes, is taking up just the right amount of space — no more and no less than we are entitled to, with awareness of how much space others are also entitled to occupy.
It takes a lot of spiritual strength to claim humility as a spiritual virtue — not a message that one is undeserving, but an expression of wisdom about the limitation of any one person’s gifts and capacities. What we have in our lives is a result of what has been given to us, most especially the fundamental facts of our lives, which are gifts from God. Further, much of what he have and have access to is a gift from those who came before us, who prepared the ground to allow us to reach a high place.
In the midst of the racial reckoning unfolding in our own society, there is another level of meaning in Rabbi Bunam’s teaching that I had never noticed before.
The high achievements that many of us have reached are not entirely — or even chiefly — a result of our own special giftedness. I was able to go to college and graduate school and to buy my first home, for example, because my parents, as white Jews, were accorded privileges available only to white people. My father grew up poor and my mother was an immigrant, but my father went to law school and bought a first home on the GI bill, benefits to which he would not have had access had he been a Black veteran. Had I not inherited my parents’ life of privilege, my own life would have unfolded very differently.
It is very tempting to see our own successes as solely an expression of our own efforts and talents. We surely have worked hard to get where we are. But if we (those of us who are white Jews) fail to see how American society gives us benefits that are not available to people of color, we falsely believe that we reached “the mountaintop” simply because we were deserving.
Actually, many others were deserving as well, but were not given the same access.
We did not ask for this white privilege, and we could not give it back even if we wanted to.
American society treats us (white Jews) as it does because of deeply rooted racial biases, which will not be transformed easily. The very least we can do is to acknowledge that we have been given advantages that others also deserved.
The virtue of humility requires, at the very least, that we be grateful for what we have been given, and made good use of it, for the good of all people.