Matzah or Chametz?

Friday, 24 March, 2023 - 12:37 am

I always talk to myself; it is the only way to ensure intelligent conversation. —A man

There is something intriguing you will notice in any Torah scroll—and Chumash—in the opening word of the third book of the Torah, Vayikra, Leviticus. The opening words of the book are: "He called to Moses." The Aleph of the word, "He called” is the first word in the Book of Leviticus. The aleph is written in miniature.

This is how it has been since the first Torah Scroll was written by Moses 3300 years ago. But why? What is the significance of this?

Contrast this with one more place in the Tanach where the Alef is written in a large size—larger than the usual Alef. That is in the opening verse of the book of Chronicles, the book that recounts the history of human civilization.

The opening Alef of the word Adam is very large.

Why the contrast?

It is this paradox that is essential to Judaism. How do we view ourselves? As great or as small?

The Torah gives us conflicting messages. Believing that there is a G-d in whose presence we stand means that we are not the center of our world. G-d is.

“I am dust and ashes,” said Abraham, the father of faith. “Who am I?” said Moses, the greatest of the prophets. In our daily prayers we say, “may my soul be like the dust of the earth!”

But the Mishnah states: “Every person is obliged to say, the world was created for me!” That sounds pretty arrogant to me.

And what do we tell our kids? You are the best, or you are small? Take yourself very seriously, or don’t take yourself seriously at all.

The answer to this, says the Rebbe, is the two Alef’s. There is a place for the small Alef and there is a space for the large Alef. The two are not mutually exclusive. In fact, they stem one from the other.

There are two forms of humility. There is humility where you see yourself as worthless and insignificant. It is an expression of self-abasement. There is humility where you see yourself always in the presence of G-d, whose ambassador on earth you are.

There are likewise two forms of pride. One form of pride is seeing yourself as superior to others; you feel the need to look down on others or to brag about yourself. You are allergic to criticism, and you seek self-aggrandizement.

In the summer of 1986, two ships collided in the Black Sea off the coast of Russia. Hundreds of passengers died as they were hurled into the icy waters below. News of the disaster was further darkened when an investigation revealed the cause of the accident. It wasn't a technology problem like radar malfunction--or even thick fog. The cause was human stubbornness. Each captain was aware of the other ship's presence nearby. Both could have steered clear, but according to news reports, neither captain wanted to give way to the other. Each was too proud to yield first. By the time they came to their senses, it was too late.

Another form of pride is you know who you are, you appreciate your G-d-given strength, and you are cognizant that in every situation and under all circumstances G-d entrusted you with a mission to serve Him and be His ambassador for love, light, and hope to heal the world.

This type of pride is not contradictory to humility; it stems from it. Abraham’s and Moses’ humility did not render them servile or sycophantic. It was precisely Abraham called himself dust and ashes that he challenged G-d on the justice of His proposed punishment of Sodom and the cities of the plain. It was Moses, the humblest of men, who urged God to forgive the people, and if not, “Blot me out of the book You have written.” These were among the boldest spirits humanity has ever produced.

Humility in the Jewish view is not low self-regard. That is self-denigration and self-abasement. Humility means that you are secure enough not to need to be reassured by others.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks wrote: One of the humblest people I ever met was the late Rebbe. There was nothing self-abasing about him. He carried himself with quiet dignity. He was self-confident and had an almost regal bearing. But when you were alone with him, he made you feel you were the most important person in the room. It was an extraordinary gift. It was “royalty without a crown.” It was “greatness in plain clothes.” It taught me that humility is not thinking you are small. It is thinking that other people have greatness within them.

And this is the secret of the two Alefs. When G-d is calling out to you, “Vayikra,” you are a small Alef. In the presence of G-d, you are humble.

But when it comes to the story of the world the story of human civilization, here Adam must have a large Alef: he must recall his infinite greatness. When we have the humility of knowing we are working for G-d, we do not become smaller; we become much larger.

A Jewish tycoon once shared with me that he was sitting with the late British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who was one tough personality and came to be known as The Iron Lady, serving as the longest and firmest Prime Minister of the United Kingdom of the 20th century.

He asked her what was the most amusing moment in her career.

Mrs. Thatcher shared the following story. The British Queen and Margaret Thatcher would meet once a week, on Tuesdays, at 630 PM. Once, Thatcher entered the police, approached the Queen, and much to the Prime Minister's horror, she noticed that she and the queen were wearing the same dress.

The next morning, the Prime Minister sent a handwritten note to the Queen expressing her profound apology for the incident. She added that henceforth she ordered her staff to ask the Palace what the Queen would be wearing so that this would not happen again.

A few hours later a note came back to Thatcher from the palace. The note read: "No need to apologize. Her Majesty never notices what commoners wear!”

I love the story, not so much because of what it says about the British royal family, but because of the lesson we can glean from it. A Jewish soul is a royalty, a “Fragment of the Divine.” When you truly realize that, then you face the world with a large Alef—you do not even “notice” the obstacles, inner or outer, to your mission, because you are the queen.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Yoseph Geisinsky

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