by Melissa Carpenter, maggidah
Vayikra to Moses, and God spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting. (Leviticus/Vayikra 1:1)
vayikra (וַיִּקְרא) = and he/It called, proclaimed, summoned; and he/It met.
The book of Leviticus and its first Torah portion are called Vayikra, the opening word. In Hebrew, the word looks different here than in any other place in the Bible, because of the size of the last letter:
Early copies of the Torah had no diminutive letters. But when the Masoretes wrote their definitive 9th-10th century versions of the Torah, they spelled 28 words with small letters, including Vayikra with a small alef, and the word has appeared that way ever since.
Torah scrolls omit the vowels that the Masoretes added to the text, but keep the Masoretic diminutive letters. So in a Torah scroll, the first word of Leviticus looks like this:
Most of the Masoretic additions to the text of the Hebrew Bible make it easier for someone to read (or chant) the Bible out loud. The nikkudim (marks above, below, and inside letters to indicate vowels and doubled consonants) clarify pronunciation. The trope (cantillation marks above and below letters) indicate which syllables to accent, and which melodic phrases to use for chanting. With both kinds of markings, the first word of Leviticus looks like this:
There are also places where the Masoretic text gives two versions of a word, one (ketiv) in its original spelling (an actual word, but probably a scribal error), and one (kere) in a spelling that makes sense in context.
But the 28 words with diminutive letters would be spoken or chanted the same way regardless of the size of their letters. Why did the Masoretes use small letters?
Some versions of 10th century Masoretic texts include marginal notes, and at least six of these notes on small letters say (in a rough translation of the Aramaic) “small [name of letter] to state the accepted version”. The footnotes for at least four more just say “small” (ze-ira), probably an abbreviation of the note that the letter is small to indicate the accepted version.
In other words, in the versions of the text that the Masoretes found unacceptable, the words were spelled with the controversial letters omitted. For example, the first word of Leviticus was spelled ויקר.
In the accepted version of the text, the words were spelled with the controversial letters included. Vayikra was spelled ויקרא. The Masoretes spelled these words according to the “accepted” version—but they made the controversial letters undersized to document that they were missing in some Torah scrolls.
Out of the 28 words with diminutive letters, seven are proper names, and ten are not even Hebrew words without the small letter. So only eleven of the words might mean something different if the diminutive letter were omitted. And one of these is vayikra, the first word of this week’s Torah portion.
Without the alef (א) at the end, vayikra (וַיִּקְרא = and he/it called, summoned, met, encountered) would be vayiker (וַיִּקֶר = and he/it happened to, befell). The opening sentence would read: And It happened to Moses, and God spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting.
God “happens to” (וַיִּקֶר) the Mesopotamian prophet Bilam in Numbers/Bemidbar 23:3. God tells Bilam what to do, and then when it is time for him to utter a curse or blessing, God puts the words into Bilam’s mouth. It is a one-way relationship.
But the prophet Moses has a two-way relationship with God. They have long conversations, and sometimes argue with one another. So God wants to get Moses’ attention, God “meets” him or “calls” to him.
In an earlier post, Vayikra: A Voice is Calling, I mentioned that God “called” Moses three times, the first two times from Mount Sinai, and the third time (with the diminutive alef) from the Tent of Meeting. I cited commentary in Rashi and the Zohar that the miniature alef indicates a restriction or muting of the call, and suggested that God switched to an “indoor voice” when the people switched to connecting with God through the vehicle of the sanctuary tent.
This year, I’d like to add that whether you encounter God in a sanctuary, or anywhere else in your life, there are two kinds of encounters. Sometimes a mystical experience just happens to you. If you are like Bilam, your mind is wired in such a way that it happens relatively often.
The other kind of encounter begins when you merely notice the possibility of the numinous—as Moses noticed the bush that burned but was not consumed. You stop and pay attention, and try to figure out what is going on. If you are quiet enough, you may discover that the divine is calling you—as God called to Moses in the first portion of Exodus:
God saw that he had turned aside to look, vayikra to him from amidst the bush, and It said: Moses! Moses! (Exodus/Shemot 3:4)
18th-century rabbi Menahem Nahum Twersky of Chernobyl wrote in Me’or ‘Eynayim , “God the cosmic aleph is present in miniature form within each Israelite, calling us to return. These are our pangs of conscience, but we do not perceive them as God’s own call to us.” (Translated by Rabbi Arthur Green in Speaking Torah, Vol. 1, p. 250.)
Thus a conversation with the divine voice could be a much quieter affair than when God “happens” to someone.
At the beginning of this week’s Torah portion, at the beginning of the book of Leviticus, God calls Moses with a small alef. Then Moses realizes that completing the Tent of Meeting according to God’s specifications is not the end of his work. Even though God’s radiance has filled the sanctuary, Moses hears the divine inner voice urging him to go back into the Tent of Meeting for further instructions.
May all of us learn how to be still, pay attention, and listen for the call inside ourselves.