Consider the aleph

small aleph vayikra.jpg

As we turn this week from the book of Exodus to Leviticus, we go from externality to internality, from the exhiliration of freedom and revelation to the humdrum of daily practice. Leviticus also shifts our attention to the parts of ancient religion that most trouble our postmodern sensibilities: ritual animal slaughter; priestly "purity;" and sacrifice, so much sacrifice. You could be forgiven for saying, "If this is what we have at the heart of Torah—literally in the middle—maybe this Torah isn't for me." But I want to hit pause on that impulse, as well as all the blood and gore of the first few chapters of Vayikra (as Leviticus is known in the vernacular), to consider the aleph.

First, let's go back a few weeks, to the revelation at Sinai. The first words "spoken" there were, "I am Y-H-V-H your God, who took you out of the Narrow Place, the house of slavery" (Ex. 20:2). The midrash (Torah's dream of itself) says that the first of those words, אנכי/anochi/'I am' was so overwhelming for the Israelites that it was all they could bear to hear. Chew on that for a second: the revelation of Being just about blew everyone's circuits, so that they couldn't hear anything else!

The midrash goes on to say that maybe all they heard was, paradoxically, the silent letter aleph at the beginning of anochi. One huge ALEPH the size of the world, reverberating (in its silence) through all of creation. This is the aleph (the letter that represents the number 1) of unitive consciousness, where all are one. One hasidic master, Naftali Tzvi Horowitz of Ropshitz, goes as radically far as saying that this aleph is the face of God itself, seeing a nose and eyes in the calligraphic Torah aleph.

Horowitz goes on to say that in that aleph was also the eleph/one thousand (spelled the same way in vowelless Hebrew: אלף) of the multitude, meaning us. Created b'tzelem elohim/in the image of God, we are all coins stamped in the same silent, unitive mold. When we behold the face of any one of us, we are, in fact, beholding the face of the One. The mystics called this state of unitive awareness modhin d'gadlut/expanded consciousness. It's a lovely place to be.

But we can't always be in gadlut, nor would we want to be. Being in nondual consciousness makes it dangerous to navigate traffic! For this reason, in Vayikra, we find another aleph altogether. As you can see in the image above, the word vayikra in a Torah scroll is written with a teeny tiny aleph—a scribal tradition that predates any explanation and has spawned many a commentary.

As we make the remarkable shift to this book this year, that teeny aleph has captured my imagination as well. Perhaps it is the small aleph of modhin d'katnut/contracted consciousness and duality. Vayikra is often called Torat Kohanim/the priestly instruction manual, and just as we learned a few weeks ago that we are to become a mamlechet kohanim/a kingdom of priests (Ex. 19:6), perhaps this is an instruction manual for us on how to live on the side of holiness in the messy real—and dual—world.

A hint can be found in the profoundly democratic and class-concious nature in which Torah lays out the system of sacrifices. (Another year, I'll delve into the word קרבן/korban, which we translate as "sacrifice," but derives from the root ק–ר–ב, which is related to closeness, so a better a translation might be "act of drawing close," instead of sacrifice.) We learn this week that a korban can be a bull, a sheep, a dove or a grain offering. All are equally acceptable for God, producing the "sweet smell unto Y-H-V-H"* which seems to be the desired effect.

What's the difference between those offerings? Money! Owning a bull, let alone being able to part with it for no material compensation, is (and was) a sure signal of wealth. Think of this as akin to progressive tax brackets, or "every one according to their means." The most modest korban, the grain offering, is said to be offered by a nefesh/soul (Lev. 2:1) (unlike the other offerings, which don't have a specified subject). Rashi, medieval commentator par excellance, says, "Who brings a grain offering? The poor person! The Holy One of Blessing says, as it were, 'I will regard it for them as though they brought their very soul as an offering.'" This is Torah for living in the real world.

I don't know about you, but I have no interest in returning to the days of animal korbanot, but I am interested in living in a just world. While the laws of priestly "purity" are problematic, the implicit acknowledgement that we live, most of the time, in a dual world, leads me to want to pursue holiness, however messy its process. The big-as-the-world unitive nondual ALEPH of Sinai may or may not be at my reach at any given moment; but the teeny-tiny aleph of Vayikra, in its accessibility and real-world practicality, holds out the possibility of acting out holiness from a contracted, yet not disconnected, consciousness.

May we be blessed to hold both alephs in our lives at the right times, and may we do so with a deep knowing that the face of God is found in the face of the eleph—the multitude that is every human being (and every living creature!) we encounter.

*This leaves us with Reb Zalman's question: "Does God really want a nice-smelling lamb chop?" But that, too, is a discussion for another time. (Spoiler alert: my answer is "no.")