Friday, 16 March, 2018 - 12:00 pm

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: “Vayikra El Moshe,” "He called to Moses." The Aleph of the word for, "He called/Vayikra,” the first word in the Book of Leviticus, is written smaller than usual. The Aleph is written in miniature.

This is how it has been since the first Torah Scroll 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 Aleph is written in a large size—larger than the usual Alef. That is in the opening verse of the book of Chronicles, Divrei Hayamim—the book that recounts the history of human civilization. The opening verse reads  Adam, Seth, Enosh.

The opening Aleph of the word Adam is very large.  Why the contrast?

Let me share an intriguing insight presented by the Rebbe.  Here in Vayikra, G-d is calling out to Moses. The word “and He called,” comes with the small Aleph. In Chronicles the theme is recounting the story from humanity beginning with Adam and Eve, continuing throughout the generations, over the next 3400 years of human and Jewish civilization, beginning with the first human being, Adam. Here the word “Adam” comes with a large Aleph.

These two Alehs capture two paradoxical notions in Judaism’s view of the human individual.  It is a paradox inherent also in the Passover holiday.

On  Passover, we are forbidden the slightest particle of leavened bread, representing the inflation of the ego, pride, and vanity. All pompousness must be rejected for the sake of the flattened, humble matzah.  

And yet on that very night, we are instructed to experience ourselves as kings, as royal aristocrats, free people. We recline like kinds, we drink four cups of wine celebrating freedom, and we partake in the seder designated to re-experience the taste of absolute liberty and freedom. A slave is a surrendered creature; he lacks self-determination. He is constantly deflated, in service of his master. He does now own himself. A free person owns his body, his mind, his time, and his resources. He can seek self-expression and self-actualization. Yet it is precisely at that moment of Passover when we celebrate self-determination that we are commanded to consume only flattened and humble matzah.

It is this paradox that is essential to Judaism. How do we view ourselves? As great or as little? Do you look in the mirror and say: This guy is awesome, or do you look in the mirror (or your wife’s mirror) and you hear a voice saying: This guy is just a tiny droplet on the surface of the planet.

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, are the two Alephs. 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 at 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 contradictorily to humility; it stems from it. Abraham’s and Moses’s humility did not render them servile or sycophantic. It was precisely at the moment 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. It means that you don’t feel you have to prove yourself by showing that you are cleverer, smarter, more gifted or successful than others. You are secure because you live in G-d’s love. He has faith in you always, even when you are in a low. You do not need to compare yourself to others. You have your task, they have theirs.

In 2014 the Harvard Business Review published the results of a survey that showed that “The best leaders are humble leaders.” They learn from criticism. They are confident enough to empower others and praise their contributions. They take personal risks for the sake of the greater good. They inspire loyalty and strong team spirit. And what applies to leaders applies to each of us as marriage partners, parents, fellow-workers, members of communities and friends.

What type of husband or wife are you? Can you take criticism? Can you listen to another view? Must you always be in the center of the universe? When we place "myself" at the center of our universe, we eventually turn everyone and everything into a means to our ends. That diminishes them, which diminishes us. Humility means living by the light of that-which-is-greater-than-me. When G-d is at the center of our lives, we open ourselves up to the glory of creation and the beauty of other people. The smaller the self, the wider the radius of our world.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks wrote: One of the most humble people I ever met was the late Lubavitcher 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 Alephs. When G-d is calling out to you, “Vayikra,” you are a small Aleph. In the presence of G-d, you are humble.

But when it comes to the story of the world—Divrei Hayamim—the story of human civilization, here Adam must have a large Aleph: 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. We realize that we are a reflection of the Divine, a piece of His infinity, charged with the mission to bring in His light into the world. Each of us reflects the infinite in his or her own way and no one can take away or diminish my light.

When I realize that at every moment I am charged with a mission by G-d to live a purpose driven life and to be His ambassador to the world, to serve Him each and every moment, then no power can beat me down, no voice can stifle my creativity, no obstacle can crush my spirit, no setbacks can curb my enthusiasm. Because this is G-d’s world, and He placed me here and now to work for Him. So any situation I find myself in cannot be more powerful than my mission right here, right now, in these conditions, under these circumstances.

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 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, 6:30 PM. Once, Thatcher entered the palace, approached the Queen and much to the Prime Minister's horror, she noticed that she and the queen were wearing exactly the same dress.

The next morning, the Prime Minister sent a handwritten note to the Queen expressing her profound apology over 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 share 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 Aleph—you do not even “notice” the obstacles, inner or outer, to your mission, because you are the queen.

Shabbat Shalom and Happy Rosh Chodesh Nissan,
Rabbi Yoseph Geisinsky


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