The Simplest Wisdom – Devar Torah on Vayyikra 5773

Devar Torah for Vayyikra all formatted by clicking HERE!

Unformatted below…

Shabbat shalom,

Try to make the simplest sound that you can with your mouth.

Try to involve as few parts of your mouth as possible.

If your mouth is closed, then the sound you made was probably mmm.

If your mouth was open, then the sound you made was probably some very short vowel sound: ah, eh, ih, oh, uh, etc.

When your mouth is open and you make the simplest sound you can, you make the sound of the Hebrew letter Alef (א): ah, oh, eh, etc. For English speakers, alef sounds like a vowel. It is the simplest sound we can make when we open our mouths.

I want to talk about a very special Alef that we see in today’s Torah reading. Right in the very first word, vayyikra—meaning, “God called,” as in “God called to Moses”—there is an unusually small alef. That small alef that we see in the reading appears here in every Torah, and we can even see this in our Hummash at Leviticus 1:1. We can tell that this alef is a small alef since the word next to it begins with a normally sized alef: אל ויקרא (vayyikra el, “God called to…”); we can compare the two alefs and see how our parashah begins with a small alef: a small simple sound.

One of the many reasons that alef is an important letter in Hebrew is that, in the Book of Genesis, God creates through speech. God says, “Let there be light,” and there is light; “Let there be birds,” and there are birds; “Let there be people,” and there are people; and so on and so forth. It is through speech that God brings the universe into being. Jewish mystics—Kabbalists and Hasidic thinkers—say that the first sound to cause our world to exist was alef—that simplest of sounds of the open mouth. It is from that ancient, primordial alef that the Wisdom of the universe emerges.

Chaim of Chernovitz (1760-1816) taught that there were two kinds of Wisdom: sekhel (שֵֽׂכֶל). One he called sekhel ma’asi (שֵֽׂכֶל מַעֲשִׂי), which is “basic wisdom.” Basic wisdom is our ability to say facts and say things that anyone could have observed. Someone might say, “How was the movie?” And we might say, “It was long. 2 and a half hours. The plot took many turns.” There is no personal opinion, and no analysis or serious assessment when it comes to basic wisdom. Chaim of Chernovitz says that even animals have this kind of basic wisdom. Any living creature knows the setting of the scene around them.

But then the second kind of wisdom is even more important for humans because, of all the creatures on Earth, only humans have this form of wisdom. It’s called sekhel iyyuni (שֵֽׂכֶל עִיּוּנִי), meaning “analytical wisdom,” and it’s our ability to think critically. Someone might say, “How was the movie?” And we might say, “It was very powerful, but very long. 2 and a half hours, but well worth it. I doubt that I could have ever thought of a story with so many plot twists. It was very well-written!” Analytical wisdom is the stuff that we have sat and thought about—the things that might not even be obvious to an outsider. Analytical wisdom is our ability not only to connect the dots, but also to engage emotionally with the world around us. It’s going beyond the facts.

In explaining these two kinds of sekhel, Chaim of Chernovitz intimates an image of the children of Israel witnessing all of the miracles of the desert but having no sekhel iyyuni, no analytical wisdom: no capability to take in anything wondrous that they saw. But sekhel iyyuni is an essential component of the religious life, he says. The facts of religious life—opening a siddur, wearing a tallit, lighting Shabbat candles—are no guarantee of a spiritual experience. Sekhel iyyuni, the ability to evaluate personally—how does this affect me, how do I relate to this ritual, does this feel holy to me—these are the questions that give meaning to Jewish life. To live a holy life, we need to be able to analyze our personal experiences.

One of the classic ways the rabbis of old interpreted Torah is they’d look at the Hebrew alefbet and say that each letter is equal to a number. In gematriyyah—this system of “counting” letters—alef, the first letter, is equal to 1; bet, the second letter, is equal to 2; gimal, the third letter, is equal to 3; and so on. It would be like someone saying that, in English, A is 1, and B is 2, and C is 3. So, you can always calculate a Hebrew word by adding up the numerical value of each letter. When the rabbis look at the word אָדָם (adam)—which means “humanity”—they say: א (alef) is equal to 1; ד (dalet) is equal to 4; and ם (mem) is equal to 40. So, 1+4+40=45. The rabbis look at this and say, “The number 45 must be significant for other reasons too!” And they do find a reason. They look at the Hebrew word מַה (mah)—meaning “what”—and they do that math: מ (mem) is equal to 40; and ה (heh) is equal to 5. So, 40+5=45. The rabbis say then that “humanity” is equal to “what;” the human experience can be reduced to the simplest, primordial question: what? Mah? Chaim of Chernovitz rereads Exodus 16:7, where the children of Israel ask, “What are we?” as they complain to Moses. Instead, Chaim says that we should not read those words with a question mark, but with a period! The children of Israel don’t ask, “What are we?” They declare their identity. “We are what.” We are a people of what—asking what, and seeking meaning.

When we look back to the moment when human wisdom emerges from the universe—when the humans discover the ability to ask “what” and to analyze on a personal level—we see the emergence of alef, says Chaim of Chernovitz. Alef is the sekhel iyyuni that asks what and seeks to give meaning to  religious experience. Moses was the intermediary between Godly experiences and the people Israel. Moses played the role of alef—offering deeper wisdom than mere facts, giving religious meaning to the people Israel.

So, you might ask: What does any of this have to do with the size of the letter alef in the first verse of Leviticus? Chaim of Chernovitz says: It is Moses’ alef, and Moses was a humble leader. A leader with his humility did not need a big alef, and it was the smallest and simplest of alef moments that opened up the mouth of Wisdom, opening up to the people Israel an entire universe of sacred questions and sacred answers. And it all begins with Moses’ humble Alef—Moses’ small spark of simple awe and amazement for the Divine: the inspiration and the courage to pursue Wisdom by asking the simplest yet most comprehensive of questions, “What?”

Socrates is quoted as saying, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” The Jews see their world created on the foundation of Wisdom, and, the more probing the wisdom, the more appreciated is God’s universe of mysteries. Not only does the Jewish world begin with a simple sound of alef, but alef is the beginning of so many simple interjections of enlightenment: ooh, ahh, ohh. Or skepticism: ehh. Or puzzlement: uhh.

Alef—as both “Wisdom” and “What”—is the first Jewish sound to reverberate through God’s cosmos. Alef is the question and the answer; the known and the unknown; the articulate and the inarticulate. Alef is the beginning of the Jewish quest for religious truth, and it is the endless perimeter of what humans strive to understand.

Just as Moses’ humblest wisdom provoked the children of Israel to say, “What are we,” we too have to learn to say, “What are we.” With every “What,” and with every Alef, we seek the greater wisdom of the universe.

In an age long past God’s creating the universe, and in an age millennia after Moses granted his people the fruits of his leadership—we still have a religious duty to ask “What” and to seek deeper meanings.

Fortunate for us, alef is a necessity for the human condition. Alef: the sound we make whenever we open our mouths.


About jonahrank

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