Vayikra: Do You Size Up?


This week begins the 3rd book of the Torah, Sefer Vayikra. Vayikra translates as, ''and He called'', refering to God''s calling to Moses. Thus the theme of ''divine calling'' stands out as a central teaching of this book, and of a spiritual life in general. The idea of calling rubs up against our deepest human hopes, quandries and discomforts. It stirs our questions of self-worth, of purpose, of productivity, and identity. To grapple with calling is, in essence, to grapple with one''s sense of ''size''.


In fact, one of the core teachings around Vayikra deals specifically with size, for the word itself features a sudden and glaring shift in the size of one of its letter. The aleph of vayikra is diminished...and how it stands out in its diminution! Commentaries amass around this one scribal detail. It becomes a key illustration of the paradox of Moses'' humility and his greatness. The Midrash shares that when God instructed Moses to write “Vayikra” in the Torah, he was reluctant. He begged God to omit this word which so expressed his being singled out with such distinction. God insisted the word be retained, though agreed to one concession. He said, “Reduce the letter Alef to a small size. This will indicate that you humbled yourself and made yourself small.”


The letter aleph, the first of letters, is identical to the word ''aluph'' – meaning ''chief, leader''. This story thus offers us a model of calling and leadership that is built upon an act of ''making oneself small'', a ready antidote to the inflation of ego that so often accompanies leadership. Moses is the aluph, the leader, who humbly diminishes himself. Along the same theme, the Midrash shares that the reason God called to Moses was because of Moses'' humility. For Moses stood outside of the Tent of Meeting and humbly refrained from entering1. Instead he waited for God to called him forth.2


Given that this Torah reading falls around the time of the holiday of Purim, I can not help but be struck by a parallel image to this that is found in the Purim story. For the defining moment of the Purim narrative is when Esther defies the royal decree against approaching the King without being called. In order to save her people, Esther risks life and limb to approach the King (who of course is taken as a metaphor for God). She approached without being called. Her act of initiative succeeds and proves her to be the leader of the generation. The contrast to Moses'' tale is striking. Whereas Moses in his humility shrunk away from approaching God until called, Esther, with great hutzpah, rose to the task of approaching the King without being called...and in that she was rewarded and in that she fulfilled her calling.


Esther''s model of leadership teaches us that divine calling is not simply about the diminishment of size, but is more about the balancing of size. Yes, perhaps it is the case for Moses that in order to take on the largeness of leadership, he needed to diminish himself. But for Esther, her calling was fulfilled when she stepping forward in self-assertion and expression.3 Both figures had to find a balance point from which to approach the divine. And so it is with us in our own efforts to enact our calling in the world. We all must find the size that is appropriate for us in any given situation. For some of us, that might mean diminishing our aleph, but for others, it might mean expanding our hutzpa. The highest ideal for which we can strive is the balancing out of size.


Integration exercise: Make an effort to notice your ''size'' in a given situation (at a dinner party, within a crowd, with your spouse or children). Size yourself up. Do you need to diminish your self or build yourself? Should you speak out or keep quiet? What is your calling at that moment and what size fits the task?





A Prayer for Proportion


Hashem, what do you want of me?


To shine or to shy?

To bury or to blare?

Am I called to sit demure

or am I called to dare?


And if I blaze too bright

and brazen

will you cover me

with your hovering

of ceiling soft and cloud?


Or if I cower too cautious

will you pillar into fire

to summon me

to summits higher

than I myself allow?


Is our lesson in the lessening

or is it in the rowdy

row of song?


Is it our task to tremble

at the Tabernacle?

To stutter and stub our toes

lest we should overstep

or open what is better left closed?


Or rather are we called

to tackle the treasured whim

of entrance

to pay the tole of voice

and tell the truth with boisterous

and boyish zeal?


Perhaps it is our destined path to steal

the stash of cunning keys

of calling clad in harmony


To push aside the tapestry

to the draped domain of God

enshrined within our very sleeves?


What of we who have traced

long geneologies

of uncalled-for humility


All too familiar with the art of a whisper

the firm push of a hush.


What of we who have witnessed

minions of with-holding

and modesty gone amuck

and all we want

to do is step through

the crowd who cower at the gate

and enter into the incensed den of witness


To be seen and to be shown

- to allow for expression

where long lines of repression

have sown

something not humble or holy

but something pained

estranged from calling

withheld and shamed


And yes I blame

the black-belts of chastity

and rather belt a song

to set a frenzy of

shifting tides

of size

in perpetuity


For I want no tight wrap of scroll

to seal my childrens'' lips.

I want them to quip



Practiced as piano scales

instilled with skills

of opening to gusts of prayer.


Where yawn is turned to song

and closets into windows

full of phosphorescence

and ever-falling-music notes.


To not be thrown by winds

of all-too-human trends

to know intuitively

to chose

how to speak

and when


To know when to request a feast

to save something precious from

becoming extinct.


So, please,

help us as we strive

in the balancing out

of size and shine


Instill in us the wisdom

to know how to best

approach the King Divine



1Vayikra Rabba 1:5

2 Humility appears to be the Biblical trademark of greatness. Bezalel, the great and singled-out constructor of the mishkan, was also a man of humility. His name means “In the shadow of God” and evokes an image of one who lingers in the shadows, not the showman on center stage. In the Torah, it is the man who shuns the lime-light that shines with God''s light.