One of my favorite teachers in yeshivah was a wiry old man whom we called “Reb Yisroel.” He was an old-world scholar, a brilliant mind from the shtetls of Eastern Europe, a man who knew the Talmud like the back of his hand, and whose searing wit would leave you panting in its wake.

But what was it that was so profound about his teaching methodology (at least for me)?

I’ll be honest with you. While attending his official lectures, I wasn’t tuned in. They were completely over my head, and I didn’t appreciate them.

But what I did appreciate—and very much so!—were his one-on-one study sessions. You see, in the yeshivah-style setting, the preferred pedagogical method is for the young students to study much of the material in pairs in a large, cavernous hall. Only twice, or perhaps three times, a week, does the teacher collect his charges and school them in an official lecture. But the bulk of time is spent in that hall, sitting opposite a study partner, doing your best to hack at the study material.

"Reb Yisroel" - Rabbi Yisroel Friedman, long- time Rosh Yeshiva of Oholei Torah.
"Reb Yisroel" - Rabbi Yisroel Friedman, long- time Rosh Yeshiva of Oholei Torah.

During this time, Reb Yisroel would call upon study pairs and invite them to his table to learn with him. Individually. No distractions.

I was privileged to experience this more than once, and it was absolutely mind-blowing.

Now, you would think that over the course of the study session we’d be opening many books and foraying into all sorts of expansive areas of Talmudic academia.

Nope. Not at all.

What struck me, and deeply so, was that throughout the entire hour-long session, we didn’t venture into a single text save for the Talmudic tome in front of us. Whatever was printed on that page—that’s what we explored. Nothing else.

He would attack every word. He challenged us to explain it. Every. Single. Word. Nothing was trivial. If we couldn’t translate, explain, and justify every tiny wrinkle of logic on the page, we were toast. He would drill down and demand meaning from every nuance.

He taught me to treasure every detail no matter how small, to never overlook the profundity that lies right in front of you. You need not run to distant texts and introduce “other” opinions to achieve depth. Nope. It’s right there on the page. All you have to do is to care, be humble before the page, and look for it.

Moses, our nation’s original teacher, was of like mind.

A Small Aleph

The third book of the Torah, which the Romans liked to call “Leviticus,” is called Vayikra in Hebrew, after the opening verse: “And He called to Moses, and G‑d spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting …”1 The words “And He called” are the translation of Vayikra.

Beyond the meaning of the actual word, there’s a curious anomaly regarding how it’s written in the actual Torah scroll. According to tradition, the last letter, the aleph, is smaller than all the other letters, and indeed, the entire Torah.

What is the significance of this anomaly?

The question is raised by many of the classic Torah commentaries,2 and there is a similar theme to their answers. For example, one medieval scholar writes, “Out of his great humility, Moses distanced himself from any sort of prestige. He avoided the limelight to the extent that G‑d had to actively call out to him. Thus, the aleph of the word Vayikra—and He called—is small.”3

But there’s more to the small aleph.

There’s No Such Thing as a “Small Matter”

In addition to being a simple letter in the Hebrew alphabet, the word aleph is an independent word with its own meaning. In fact, it has two meanings: “teaching/studying” as well as “general/minister.”

With this dual meaning, we emerge with a new understanding of what Moses’ humility drove him to do: to approach every Torah idea (“teaching”) as if it was a big deal (“general/minister”).

This is what humility does. When you’re arrogant, or lulled into a sense of self-confidence, then you lack the wonder and the appreciation of a child. You learn new things, you study ancient texts and apply yourself to new sciences, yet you fail to completely apply yourself to the tiny details and subtle nuances that seem unimportant. “Oh, I know that already, I don’t need to spend too much time figuring it out,” you tell yourself. And so you gloss it over, not taking the time to properly appreciate and plumb its depths.

The humble man like Moses doesn’t have such deficiencies. His complete lack of self, the absence of all “me,” frees him to approach every study with the wonder and fascination of a small child. “I don’t know anything; let me discover new things today and cherish them,” he says.

In this mindset, there is nothing too small, too trivial, too stupid, or too familiar with which to waste my time. No! In this mindset, in this humility timezone, I don’t know anything, and everything is just so downright wondrous. As such, I treasure everything I learn. I revel in it, turn it over, back and forth, mining it for whatever it's worth (and more!), and emerge with unprecedented goods.

Treasure Everything You Learn

This is what Reb Yisroel taught me, and it’s what Moses taught each one of us: be humble in your study! You don’t know everything, and so you should learn to appreciate every detail.

It’s certainly true when it comes to Torah study, and it’s true in life. If you maintain the tenuous position that you’ve achieved peak knowledge (consciously or not), then you will miss all the treasures that lie right there on the page in front of you.

But if you take a cue from Moses, then you will discover so much depth, so many teaching moments, your mind will be blown. Constantly.4