Chelm is a fictional town in European Jewish folklore known as a community of holy fools. (Illustration/F. Halperin's "Khakme Khelm," Warsaw, 1926)
Chelm is a fictional town in European Jewish folklore known as a community of holy fools. (Illustration/F. Halperin's "Khakme Khelm," Warsaw, 1926)

In an age of narcissism, the value of humility

Vayikra
Leviticus 1:1-5:26
Isaiah 43:21-44:23

The rabbi of New Chelm* was sitting with a new bat mitzvah student. Looking at her Torah portion, Vayikra, the student peered closely at the Torah scroll, pointed at the very first word — and namesake of the portion and the book — and said, “What is that?”

“That,” the rabbi of New Chelm said, “is the word ‘Va-yi-kra.’ It sounds like what it means: ‘And God Called,’ like a crow, ‘Kraw!’”

shows the text the first few words of Leviticus in a Torah scroll: "Vayikra el Moshe vidaber ..."
Why is the last letter of the first word of Leviticus written so small?

“Oh. No. I mean, what is that?” she asked, pointing at the last letter of the first word. “Why is the letter aleph so much smaller?”

“Ah. The small aleph comes to teach us about hubris and arrogance. Hubris is the enemy of greatness.”

“Wasn’t Moshe great?”

“Yes, he did great things. Vayikra is the first book of the Torah following the Exodus, the arrival at Sinai, and the acceptance of the Torah. You would think that Moses would have quite the big head. But no, he was still humble, unsure, and had to be called out by God to take his next step of leadership. The Midrash says that the small aleph teaches:

“‘Lower yourself until you are requested to rise to your proper status, rather than rising before you are called, lest you be told to lower yourself. … We find that Moshe … at the Ohel Moed (the Tent of Meeting), stood at the side until God said to him, ‘Why do you continue to lower yourself? It is your turn to rise now! (Vayikra Rabbah 1:5)’”

“My parents say that girls should be seen and not heard. Is that humility?”

“No,” said the rabbi of New Chelm, “That is suppression and sexism. I did not become the first female rabbi of Chelm by being quiet. I earned it by learning, and teaching texts like this from the Tosafot (medieval commentaries on the Talmud):

“‘Why is the aleph of the word vayikra traditionally written smaller than the other letters of the Sefer Torah? In order to show that although God called to Moshe, and although God showed Moshe tremendous respect by constantly speaking to him, even so, Moshe constantly “lessened” himself before God and before the community of Israel.’”

“So the Midrash says that Moshe stood aside and waited to be called to enter the Tent of Meeting? Couldn’t he have taken the first place in line and used his privileges to be first?”

“Yes. According to this Midrash, the reason God had to call Moshe was that Moshe humbly waited to be called before entering the Ohel Moed. It is therefore appropriate for the Torah to hint at Moshe’s modesty through one of the letters of the word ‘Vayikra.’”

The bat mitzvah student looked up to her rabbi and asked, “Who was a great and modest person in your life?”

The rabbi smiled. “So many women, and a few good men. One man you may have learned about was Yitzhak Rabin, the prime minister of Israel, who was murdered in the name of arrogant self-righteousness. King Hussein of Jordan spoke at his funeral, saying:

“‘He was endowed with humility. He felt with those around him and in a position of responsibility, he placed himself, as I do and have done, often, in the place of the other partner to achieve a worthy goal. And we achieved peace, an honorable peace and a lasting peace.’”

“Wow. Rabin had the same modesty as Moshe Rabbeinu. What is the opposite of modesty?”

“Narcissism. A narcissist is the type of person who shows extreme selfishness, with a grand view of one’s own talents and a craving for admiration. Do you know what the only good thing about a narcissist is?”

Now the bat mitzvah student smiled: “You always know what they are thinking about!”

“You are very wise, like all of us in Chelm.”

“Then why do people call us fools?”

“Envy. However, even a fool knows what a narcissist sounds like.”

*In Eastern European Jewish folklore, Chelm is a city populated by well-meaning fools, who, because they were fools, thought themselves to be wise.

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Rabbi Peretz Wolf-Prusan

Rabbi Peretz Wolf-Prusan is the chief program officer and senior educator at Lehrhaus Judaica. He can be reached at peretz@lehrhaus.org.