The Amazing Shrinking Alef

A teaching of Avraham Yehoshua Heschel of Apt, from Ohev Yisroel, Parshat Vayikra.

וַיִּקְרָא אֶל מֹשֶׁה וַיְדַבֵּר יְ־הֹוָ־ה אֵלָיו

And He called to Moses, and God said to him… Leviticus 1:1

Many reasons have been given and secrets revealed concerning the small alef in vayikra (1), but let me include my own contribution, from what God has mercifully given me to understand. Let’s also try to understand the large alef from the Book of Chronicles, which begins “Adam, Seth, Enosh…” (2). Now it is known that the Holy One of Blessing created the universe with the Torah, and that the first revelation of divinity that led to the creation of all the worlds, above and below, was through the letters of the holy Torah (3). The first letter, and so the first revelation of divinity, was alef, the beginning of beginnings. It was the splendid and pure light at the world’s beginning that was hidden away (4), and the wondrous secret mentioned in the Talmud, “Into that which is too wondrous for you do not inquire” (5). The Book of Chronicles begins by considering the order of the creation of the world and recounting the generations of humans from the beginning, and it begins with a large alef, for it is the beginning of the beginning of the revelation of divinity as the splendid, pure, and clear light from the first six days of creation that lit the universe from one end to the other (4). Understand this.

But the small alef of vayikra is another matter. Rashi brings the midrash, “Every “speaking” [as in “God spoke to him”] is preceded by a “calling” [as in “He called to Moses”]. “Calling” is an expression of affection, the [same] expression employed by the ministering angels [when addressing each other], as it says, “And each called (vekara) to the other…” (6). But how is “calling” an expression of affection?

Targum Onkelos (7) translates the verse, “each received from the other,” for each world receives God’s effulgence from the world that is above it, which is greater in essence and quality (8). So each world is joined to and contained in the world below it, so that the lower world can receive its outpouring of goodness. This is referred to by “each called to the other,” for calling creates connection, just as when one person speaks to another. And so when the Creator wished to speak to Moses He joined Himself to the voice of God so that it contained Him, so to speak, and so that Moses could receive it. This is the secret of “calling” as an expression of “affection” before each “speaking,” as here when the Creator wished to speak to Moses about the order of sacrifices. For [the infinite] God needed to speak to him about specific, concrete details of the sacrifices, which bring atonement and forgiveness for the sins of humanity, which the Holy One of Blessing brought forth as healing and restitution (9). And so the alef of vayikra is small.


1) The alef of the opening word, vayikra, is written smaller than the other letters in the Torah scroll.   2) The first letter of the book, the alef of Adam, is written larger than the other letters.   3) Hakdamah Sefer HaZohar; This a mystical idea (possibly the oldest in Jewish mysticism) that the letters were the tools with which God created the world when He “spoke” and said “Let there be…”   4) See Rashi on Genesis 1:4, Masechet Hagigah 2a, Bereishit Rabbah 3.   5) Masechet Hagigah 13a, quoting the Book of Ben Sira, an apocryphal work of the late Second Temple period   6) Torat Kohanim 1:2-3; Isaiah 6:3, the account of Isaiah’s vision of the angelic choir encircling the divine throne.   7) Targum Onkelos: the authoritative Aramaic translation of the Chumash; since its composition (2nd c. according to the Talmud, 4th-5th c. according to scholars) it has been recognized as the primary way to understand the Torah, and Torah commentators regularly take its interpretations into account.   8) This is the understanding that G!d emanated the infinite divine light through a series of levels (eg, the Four Worlds and the sefirot), until the divine light was sufficiently diminished to enliven the material world without overwhelming it.   9) The Hebrew word for sacrifice, korban, actually means “drawing close.”

Jeff says…

Again we see Hasidism dwelling on the mystical understanding of the world(s) being an emanation of God’s light, each world dimmer than the last. But I don’t think the Ohev Yisroel is interested here in cosmology. Everything he says in this teaching about God’s reducing and concentrating the divine light into the finite world, here symbolized by the alef of various sizes, is review. What he brings, it seems to me, is not the awesomeness of this process, but the divine affection behind and within it. What does it say about the infinite God that He limits Himself in order to speak to Moses? That, as amazing as it sounds, the Ayn Sof, the Infinite One, wants a relationship with little us. And why does the Ohev Yisroel pick this passage, on the minutiae of the sacrifices, to make this point? Because sacrifice brings atonement, at-one-ment, and that is why God is willing to travel all those metaphysical light years to meet us, to bring us back to our Source. Our sacrifices are our prayers (later in the teaching the Ohev Yisroel even states that the point through which Moses received God’s voice was the place on his head where the tefillin lay) and this is where that meeting happens, in the words we speak. And “every speaking is preceded by a calling” — every time we open our mouths to pray, whether we know it or not, it is an answer to God’s call.

Jeff Amshalem is a graduate student of Hasidic thought at Ben-Gurion University.

This entry was posted in Avraham Yehoshua Heschel of Apt/ Ohev Yisroel, Concepts, Creation, Hasidic Masters, Parsha, Prayer, Vayikra. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The Amazing Shrinking Alef

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