A friend of mine once remarked, "I would be perfect, but I'm too humble."
This joke highlights a trait which is fundamental to Judaism, the trait of humility. To be a law-abiding Jew requires one to be God-fearing, and this can only be achieved through humble thoughts and actions.
The sages point out that Moses was both the greatest Jewish leader, and the most humble man to ever live. An example of his unparalleled humility can be seen at the beginning of this week's Torah reading. The word "vayikra" means "and he called," because God called Moses to enter the Tabernacle. The word vayikra here is written with a small aleph, because as the Midrash teaches us, Moses was at first hesitant to write the word.
Why was Moses hesitant? The Midrash explains that a person who is closely acquainted with a king normally feels comfortable entering and leaving his palace, but Moses only felt comfortable entering the Tabernacle once he was explicitly called. Moses reasoned, "True, God has selected me to lead the Jewish people until now. How do I know, though, that I will still be considered worthy of guiding them in the future? Perhaps God found a more deserving individual to serve in this capacity from now on." Moses was uncomfortable publicizing God's direct communication with him, and so he demurred from writing the word vayikra.
God reassured Moses that he was the chosen leader, and called to him so that he would feel comfortable entering the Tabernacle. However Moses still wavered at writing the word vayikra in the Torah. He begged God to allow him to write something a different word. "Why not vayiker?" Moses suggested, noting that this was the word that God used to address the non-Jewish prophet Bilaam. The word vayiker refers to an event happening by chance, as God said, "I met him [Bilaam] by chance while he was walking on the way." Once again God reassured Moses and said that he must write vayikra. Moses demurred further, and God relented and allowed him to write vayikra with a small aleph, to always remind us of Moses' humility.
The Midrash derives another lesson from the small aleph. It points out that when God called Moses to enter the Tabernacle it was a tremendous moment, but the moment was incomplete. The achievement of true joy would only come once the Temple in Jerusalem was built, and once the Jews were living in the Promised Land. Thus the exuberance of the Jews during the dedication of the Tabernacle was slightly muted, and we are reminded of this by the small aleph.
This highlights another example of humility, one shown by the entire Jewish people. To be humble is to know your strengths and your weaknesses, to know what you have and what you are lacking. The Jews at this moment had everything - the Tabernacle, daily manna from heaven, the tablets, and the dream team of leaders - Moses, Aaron and Miriam. Still, the Jews had to be humble and admit that they had not yet reached the ultimate goal of building the Temple in Jerusalem.
When a cantor stands in front of God and prays for the welfare of the community, he must do so humbly, with proper awe of God. Throughout history it has been customary to build synagogues with a recessed area for the cantor to stand, to remind him of his status, in fulfillment of the verse "Out of the depths I have cried out to you, O Lord" (Psalms 130:1). God will hear our prayers only if we assume a position of humility, and this was the humility that Moses showed constantly. The greatness of Moses came from his humility as represented by the small aleph, and we can achieve similar greatness if we remember the letter's message.
This column is dedicated in memory of Dan Miller.
Michael Gros, an alumnus of Emory University, writes from Israel, where he learns at Yeshiva Marbeh Torah.
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