by Rabbi Avi Billet
Rabbenu Bachya ben Asher begins his commentary on the book of Vayikra with an introduction, in which he includes a verse from Mishlei 22:4
“In the wake of humility comes fear of the Lord, riches, honor, and life.”
He explains how King Solomon, in writing this, was teaching us that through Anavah – humility – a number of wonderful qualities emerge. These are the reward and purpose that come to an individual Fear, wealth, honor and life. A humble person, he explains, is a shy and patient person who honors other people and speaks kindly of others. Such persons take insults that come their way, and they are silent. And through this, each person develops personal characteristic to learn to fear God, which is a combination of intellectual and emotional wisdom; and the person also achieves wealth. And no – it’s not a recipe for riches and fame. But Rabbenu Bachaye says the wealth is being happy with one’s portion, the very definition of relative wealth.
Skipping a few paragraphs, Rabbenu Bachaye gives us this gem – explaining the small alef that gets so much attention in the opening word of Vayikra – as noted, in many Midrashim, to be a reflection of the humility with which Moshe undertook his task of being the teacher for the Jewish people.
We know the Torah begins this book saying “Vayikra El Moshe” – and He called to Moshe. Shouldn’t the formulation follow how the Torah begins every introduction to God’s speech? Just like “Vaydaber Hashem el…” or “Vayomer Hashem el…,” shouldn’t it say “Vayikra Hashem el...?"
The answer is “No.”
The Book of Vayikra, of course, is its own book. But it is strongly connected to what immediately preceded it, namely the end of the book of Shmos.
The word “Vayikra” contains a small letter “Alef” at the end of it, to teach us something profound. It’s not God who is speaking to Moshe. It is the “Glory of God” that we saw at the end of the book of Shmos, filling the Mishkan, talking to Moshe. That Glory of God (“K’vod Hashem”) refers to something we saw a long time ago. A different small letter which is involved in creation – the letter “heh” in the word “B’hibaram” (Bereshit 2:4) – These are the annals of the heaven and earth ‘when they were created.’
Rabbenu Bachaye argues that the Glory of God that is calling Moshe at the beginning of our parsha in “Vayikra el Moshe” is the “heh” of “B’hibaram.” He goes on to say this is why the Alef is smaller in the opening word of Vayikra - to help us connect the dots through two messages we can take from Rabbenu Bachaye.
The first is to realize and recognize that fulfillment and meaning in life stems from being humble. Honor and Kavod come to those who earn it, not those who seek it. Being humble or practicing humility does not mean a person must hide or live under a rock. It does mean that a person goes about doing what one does because it’s right, and doesn’t seek the honors, or tell anyone of what they’ve done, to get external honor. This is not to suggest that a name can’t go on a building! It is to suggest that going around and telling everyone how special you are is not a humble practice.
The second lesson is about God’s role in the world – as Creator in the “B’hibaram” sense, and as the One who communicates His will to Moshe Rabbenu: Vayikra with a small Alef, connected to the small Heh reminds us that even the sacrificial order is part of God’s plan for His world. We don’t always understand His plan. But He is there. Sometimes we need a small Alef to remind us of a small Heh that is at the heart of the Creation story. That small heh comes immediately after Shabbos, which immediately follows the creation of mankind.
The overall concept of humility, as taught by Shlomo Hamelech in Mishlei and brought to our attention by Rabbenu Bachaye, reminds us that humility leads to Yiras Hashem (Fear of Heaven), wealth (in the sense of being content with one’s lot), Kavod and Chaim. Shabbos, tapping into what should unite us and give us the ultimate respect for one another, and simply adjusting how we present ourselves toward others should be informed by good practices so we all get more out of the human experience.