The Humble Moses

The book of Leviticus begins with the sweeping majesty of Moses’ first entry into the Tabernacle. Vayikra, G‑d “called unto” Moses and invited him to the Tent of Meeting. Uplifting and inspiring as the moment was, Moses received his honor in abject humility. In the Torah, the letter aleph of the word vayikra is written smaller than the other letters, as a tribute to Moses’ humility.1

The Midrash recounts this tale in dramatic fashion:

When G‑d spoke to Moses at the burning bush, Moses tried to hide, but G‑d declared, “Go, and I will send you to Pharaoh.” Meaning: if you don’t liberate them, no one else will. At the Reed Sea Moses set himself aside, but G‑d proclaimed, “Raise your staff and split it.” If you don’t split the sea, no one else will. At Sinai, Moses once again set himself aside, but was instructed, “Ascend to G‑d.” If you don’t ascend, no one else will be permitted to.

Those who chase glory never quite reach it.

At the Tent of Meeting, Moses stood aside yet again. G‑d finally demanded: how much longer will you lower yourself? This hour awaits no one but you! At that point, “Vayikra—G‑d called unto Moses.” Of all the people G‑d could have called, he called only to Moses.2

The Small Aleph

It is rather fitting that G‑d chose to allude to Moses’ humility by diminishing the size of the letter aleph. For the aleph had, on an earlier occasion, demonstrated its own humility. 3

Rabbi Akiva taught: The twenty-two letters with which the Torah was given are engraved with a pen of fire upon the awesome throne of the Holy One, blessed be He. When G‑d sought to create the world, the letters appeared before Him, each yearning to be the first letter with which the world would be created.

The letter tav appeared and said, “Master of the universe, would that the world be created with me, for the very word Torah begins with me.” But G‑d turned it down, and the tav withdrew. Next came the shin, but it too was rejected. And so it was with each letter. Last to approach was the beit, who asked that the world be created with it, considering it is the opening letter of baruch Hashem, the traditional divine blessing. G‑d accepted the beit’s plea and began creation with the word bereishit, “in the beginning.”

Even in a marriage, there are intensely private moments.

All this while, the aleph stood silently by. G‑d called to it and said, “Aleph, why do you remain silent?” The aleph replied, “It is because I have no strength with which to address You. Their numerical values are great, whereas mine is small: beit is two, gimmel is three, and so on, whereas my value is merely one.”

G‑d replied, “Aleph, have no fear; your place is at their head. You are one, so am I, and so is the Torah which I will give to my nation, Israel. I will begin it with aleph, as it is written, “Anochi, I am the L‑rd your G‑d.”4

When Small Is Great

It becomes clear that those who flee from glory are crowned with it, but those who chase glory never quite reach it. As the first letter, the aleph could have demanded first rights to creation, but it didn’t. It didn’t see its greatness; it saw its own paucity. And as a result, it was selected to be the first letter of the Ten Commandments.

Moses, as the leader of the nation, could also have demanded entry into the Tabernacle, but he didn’t. He humbly demurred. Ironically, his humility was also his greatness, and it was only on account of his humility that he was invited to enter the Tabernacle.

The Bride

Why was humility a prerequisite to enter the Tabernacle?

When the tabernacle was first erected, Moses was not permitted to enter.5 Jewish mysticism explains that the Tabernacle was to Moses as a bride is to a groom.6 Moses was not permitted to enter during those first moments, because the Tabernacle was still preparing for its much-anticipated meeting with Moses, and the groom is not invited to watch as the bride beautifies herself for him.

When we lay claim to our spouse’s space, we deny him or her the ability to invite us in.

There are few secrets between husband and wife. But even in a marriage, there are intensely private moments when we want to be alone, and even our spouses are not welcome. One such moment is when a wife beautifies herself for her husband. She does not want him to see the work in process, because she takes intense pleasure from presenting the final product. She wants him to see her in her full glory, and does not want to be seen before the work is complete.7

Entering before he is welcome is an invasion of her privacy. She wanted to give herself to him with all her love and in all her beauty, but by entering prematurely and without permission, he took that from her. It wasn’t his to take; it was a violation of her space, her love and her very person.

We might suggest that when the Tabernacle was complete, G‑d’s very essence descended to be with Moses. The space G‑d occupied was so intensely sacred that no one, not even Moses, was allowed to enter. G‑d wanted to be alone with Himself before He gave Himself to the Jews.

But Moses, on account of his humility, was ultimately invited into this most private of cubicles. Just like a bride tolerates no one in her room yet does not mind the presence of an infant, so did G‑d invite Moses into His innermost cubicle, because Moses regarded himself as an infant before G‑d.

Some spouses resent being barred from their beloved’s private space. They demand the right to enter, because secrets shouldn’t be kept between husband and wife. They tear down the curtains their spouse puts up, and in the process, tear down their spouse too. They succeed in invading their spouse’s space, but when they finally enter, they find it empty.

When we lay claim to our spouse’s space, we deny him or her the ability to invite us in. When we cherish and love our spouses, when we feel privileged to be married to them, we empower them to invite us in.

Moses never felt entitled. He was thrilled and humbled by the opportunity to await an invitation. He taught us to love without reserve and to cherish without expectation. In the end, should we be invited to share that sacred space, our spouse will hold the door for us and lovingly welcome us in. And when we finally enter, our spouse will be fully present and ecstatic with the opportunity to share.8