Parashat Vayikra

by Rabbi Len Levin

Moses: A Leader with a Small Ego
A Dvar Torah for Vayikra

There are two peculiarities in the opening of Leviticus that elude the English reader.

The first is that the first clause is missing a subject. Vayikra el Moshe — “and he called to Moses.” Who called? The kabbalists suppose it is an unusual part of God – maybe “Ehyeh” (I will Be) instead of the accustomed “the Lord.” Modern scholars suggest that it shows continuity with the previous passage in Exodus Chapter 40, “Moses was unable to enter the Tent of Meeting because the Presence of the Lord filled the Tablernacle…so He (i.e. the Lord) called to Moses from the Tent of Meeting.”

The second peculiarity is that the word Vayikra (he called) is written with a small aleph as its last letter. There are a number of places in the written Torah where letters are written either smaller or larger than normal, or with other abnormalities (such as dots over them), and these unusual graphic features are scrupulously maintained with every handwritten Torah scroll.

The small aleph of Vayikra gave rise to several imaginative interpretations. My favorite is that of Rabbi Abraham Saba (1440-1508, Castile, Lisbon, Fez) in his commentary Tzeror Hamor: 

Perhaps the reason for the small aleph is that Moses, in his humility, distanced himself from assuming authority and would run away and make himself small until God had to call him. That is why it is written, Vayikra el Moshe — and the Lord called to Moses — with a small aleph.

I have also heard it said that the letter aleph stands for the word anokhi — “I.” Thus a small aleph indicates a small ego.

Part of the beauty of this interpretation is that it is entirely keeping with what we know about Moses from the entire Torah narrative. Although raised at Pharaoh’s court, Moses enters the mainstream of the Exodus narrative as a shepherd whose last appearance in Egypt was as a fugitive from justice. He keeps trying to turn down his God-given assignment to lead the people by pleading personal inadequacy, but God will not take no for an answer. His first attempts to intervene with Pharaoh end in failure. His forty years of leadership of the Israelites are marked by constant grumbling and several open rebellions. When his own brother and sister turn against him, the text sees fit to remark: “Now Moses was a very humble man, more so than any other man on earth.” (Num. 12:3) Finally, after Moses’s death (after failing to enter the Promised Land), he is buried in an unmarked grave: “No one knows his burial place to this day.” (Deut. 34:6) The standard explanation for this is so that his burial place could not be the focus of a cult.

Why choose a humble man as leader? Because he puts service to his people as his highest priority. When God threatens to destroy Israel and make Moses’s progeny a great nation to replace them, he refuses (Ex. 32:11-13). He will not take so much as a donkey from them for his services (Num. 16:15). He serves not for ego gratification or material gain, but for the welfare of his people.

The later Jewish tradition gave a place of honor to the virtue of humility. Rabbi Levitas of Yavneh said: “Be very, very humble of spirit, for the end of man is the worm.” (Avot 4;4) Maimonides said that humility was an exception to the Golden Rule principle of ethics. Whereas in most virtues the desired trait is found in moderation between two extremes, in the case of humility, it was praiseworthy to follow the extreme of humility as opposed to its opposite of pride. (Hilkhot De’ot 2:3)

The medieval moralists included humility among the virtues worthy of discussion in their ethical treatises. Bahya Ibn Paquda (Saragossa, 11th century) devoted a chapter to it in his Duties of the Heart. Israel Al-Nakawa (Toledo, 14th century) similarly devoted a long chapter to it, based on Bahya’s work, in his Menorat Ha-Maor. Here are a few excerpts from the latter, in my translation (available at

He who is humble in this world is happy with his portion that the Holy One has allocated to him. He seeks no greatness for himself, nor does he covet more than fate has allotted to him, nor is he envious of others. For whoever seeks great things will never be satisfied even if he gains the entire world…. But the humble person, inasmuch as it is of the ways of humility to be happy with one’s portion, experiences no lack…Therefore his life in this world is tranquil, because he does not trouble himself about what he cannot attain. … He exhibits the two worthy virtues of humility and righteousness, thus fulfilling the verse: “A righteous man eats to satisfy his appetite” (Pr. 13:25; MH III, 145).

Moses our Teacher humbled himself, therefore the Holy One conferred greatness on him. For permission was not given to the angels or seraphim to enter the precinct where Moses entered, as it is written: “The people remained at a distance, but Moses approached the thick cloud where God was.” (Ex. 20:18; MH III, 183)


Rabbi Len Levin teaches Jewish philosophy at AJR.