Mar 2008

Parashat Vayikra

Or Mars is an alumnus and Director of the Graduate Fellowship Program. He can be reached at

The first word of this week’s parasha, Vayikra, asks from us to explore a different mode of interpreting Torah. It is a mode that taps into our aesthetic appreciation before we are allowed to delve into our intellectual capacity. The opening line begins, “Vayikra el Moshe vayidaber Adonai eilav.” (God called to Moses and spoke to him…)

The word Vayikra, “God Called (to Moses)” ends with a with an aleph zeira – a tiny or subscript aleph. Like this: Vayikra. If the scribe wrote the rest of the Torah in 12 point, this mysterious aleph would be in 8 point.

The poet E.E. Cummings also forced the reader into an aesthetic interpretation of his poems by using extraordinary placements of capital and lowercase letters. He starts one poem with “i thank You God for most this amazing day”. (My spell check is having difficulty with this). In another poem he writes, “Humanity i love you.” In both examples he diminishes himself before God and Humanity by the simple yet unusual changing of the case of the proper I.

Such is the situation of the aleph zeira in Vayikra. The Maharam in the name of Rabbi Meir interprets this subscript similarly to how I understood cummings’ use of lowercase – as an expression of humility.

Moses, who tradition holds wrote the Torah, couldn’t bring himself to internalize that God deliberately and purposefully called to him. In his humility he wanted to write the word Vayikar (Vayikra without the aleph). By dropping the aleph he would have changed the meaning from “God called” to “God happened upon” as though it occurred in a dream thereby diminishing the specialness of God choosing Moses intentionally.

In poetic compromise that incorporates God’s wishes (Vayikra) and his own sense of humility (Vayikar), Moses scribes the aleph zeira. He keeps the original intent of the word (“called to”) but uses the actual form of the letter to remind us of his discomfort in being singled out. Cummings would have been proud.

While most of Torah interpretation is done through the meaning of words, we nonetheless give value to the physical form that the letters take. Midrash Tanhuma says that the Torah is black fire written on white fire and not just ink on paper. The size, color, shape and spacing of our holy words and letters matter. Nothing is out of bounds for interpretation.

In Tractate Menehot we find Moses witnessing God drawing crowns on letters of the Torah. When he asks God why, Moses is answered with “At the end of many generations there will arise a man, Akiva ben Joseph by name, who will infer heaps and heaps of laws from each tittle on these crowns.” From this story we understand that, from inception, every thing in the Torah is grist for the mill of interpretation. 

At the Graduate Fellows Alumni Institute at the end of February, Rabbi Miriam Margles (Class XIV) led a break-out session on the Torah of Movement. No less an opportunity of holy interpretation as are the aleph zeira or Cummings’ lowercases, Rabbi Margles had the 15 people in the room spell our names in the air over and over again. First with our fingers, then with our whole hands, then arms, toes and legs. By the time we were invited to write our names with our entire backs and bodies we found ourselves in the midst of inspired, individual, and impromptu prayer dances. My dance was mystical in nature, freeing in effect. No one seemed self- conscious, I certainly wasn’t. And all from the shape of a letter.

Perhaps like many, I tend to move immediately past the form and go straight into the meaning of words. But there is holiness and meaning in the klipah – the form, the shape, the covering, the physical beauty or ugliness of every aspect of the created world. It could be said that this is exactly what the essence of poetry and art is, one that is understood by Moses and by Cummings. 

An appreciation for the power of the aesthetic is begged of us in Psalms when another poet says “How great are your works God, how profound your designs.” An awareness of the depth of the surface and the function of the form can bring extra meaning to our personal Torahs. If the size of the soundless letter aleph or the shape of crowns on Torah letters are portholes to ultimate meaning, then how much more so the shape and the size of God’s creations in our world? A mountain, a ladybug, a tree, another human being?

I write this hoping that I will be able to nurture a greater appreciation for these things. I want the aleph zeira in both its form and meaning to teach me that at times I am called towards divine beauty (Vayikra) and at other times it just happens to me (Vayikar). In either case, when I encounter the beauty I hope that I will see the Torah in it.