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Life:  We are Never Done #771

03/24/2023 05:17:00 PM


Rabbi Irwin Huberman

Parashat Vayikra
Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai received [the oral tradition] from Hillel and Shammai. He used to say: if you have learned much Torah, do not claim credit for yourself, because for such a purpose were you created. (Pirkei Avot 2:8)
Life: we are never done

There is a life philosophy which I hold dear.

I believe in the Kabbalistic teaching that each of us has something unique to contribute to the world—and no one but each of us can do it.

There never has, and there never will be, anyone quite like you.

I also believe that each of us was put on this earth to improve on a major fault. And that quest toward self-improvement defines us through a lifetime.

The balance between these two opposites keeps me in awe of every human being I encounter, while at the same time recognizing that no one I meet is perfect.

Moreover, Jewish philosophy holds that we are never finished embracing those two realities until our final breath. There is always something more to give—and always something additional to learn.

These days, through the miracle of social media, we are exposed daily to those who possess incredible talents.

It seems that anyone can attract a worldwide audience through Tiktok, Twitter or Instagram. My wife often comments as we watch commercials that it seems everyone is smiling, and everyone is profoundly satisfied with their lives.

But in reality, we never reach that final destination. Our Sages remind us that while pursuit of pleasure is a positive thing, we can never forget that life is truly about the pursuit of meaning.

And if we require biblical proof of that endless journey, we need look no further than this week’s Torah portion, as we begin reading the third book of the Torah, Leviticus.

In Hebrew, the book is called Vayikra, “and God called out to Moses.” It’s one of the rare times in the Torah that the term “called out” is used.

Additionally, there is something odd about the way it is written in the Torah. The last letter of the word Vayikra is half the size of the others. (See above)

Over the centuries, our rabbis have asked, “Why?” One of our greatest Sages, Maimonides (1138-1204), weighs in.

He notes that as Exodus closes, the Israelites are a free people. The Sea of Reeds has parted. The 10 Commandments have been given and received. We are on our way to the Promised Land.

Perhaps Moses believes it is time for him to consider retirement. He’s apparently done it all. His legacy is assured.

But, “Not so fast,” says God—according to our commentators.

Expanding upon Maimonides’ teaching, the Etz Chaim Bible commentary speculates that perhaps, “Moses thinks his mission has been completed (but) God summons him that there is much more to be done.”

And to punctuate the point, the last letter of the first word of Leviticus is printed with a little aleph—the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet—as if to say, “You’ve only just begun.”

How many times in our lives—especially as we reach a certain age—do we feel like saying, “I am done?”

“I have raised children. I have achieved career success. I have saved enough money.”

But enter the small aleph.

As it was for Moses, so it is for us—or, according to the Etz Chaim commentary, “Each generation must find new ways to make God present in new generations that God could not have foreseen.”

For Moses, is Leviticus the end, or the beginning of another chapter?

The Torah provides us with a clue as it begins Leviticus with the word “and” thus linking Exodus to the future.

We live in a society where, in spite of being ultra-connected on social media, young people feel more isolated that ever.

Increasingly, too many are obsessed with “me” rather than “us” or “them.”

Hatred, gossip, anti-Semitism, intolerance are on the rise.

The upcoming Festival of Passover provides an opportunity to teach the storied lessons to a new generation. We can use this family time to make the Torah and its message of justice, kindness and compassion relevant to our time.

As our Sages comment on this week’s Torah portion, they remind us that every day in our lives is a new beginning—back to aleph.

And how did Moses take the news that his contract was about to be renewed for 40 additional years?

Our Sages conclude that he accepted the challenge with a sense of responsibility and humility. Hence, the little letter at the end of God’s call.

There is a saying in Pirkei Avot—our ancient collection of Jewish wisdom—that “If you have learned much Torah, do not claim credit for yourself, because for such a purpose were you created.” (Pirkei Avot 2:8)


I see a profound message for our times.

Indeed, each of us possesses incredible and unique talents. That field of excellence may be in the arts or sciences, in community service, as an athlete, lawyer, physician, plumber or parent.

But let us never be so consumed by our outward accomplishments that we fail to acknowledge that we were loaded with this potential at birth.

Indeed, Moses may be regarded as our greatest leader, but in God’s eyes, he remained a little aleph. And so are we.

Maimonides posed the question, “Until when is one required to study Torah?” He answered, “Until one’s last day.”

We are never finished giving, and we are never finished learning. Therefore, let us begin every day with a little aleph imprinted upon our souls.

What can we learn? Who can we guide? How can we help?

Moses hears the call and accepts it with humility.

Indeed, life is an open-ended journey. And no matter how old we are, we need to approach it with curiosity, surprise and enthusiasm.

Therefore, each day as we rise, let us embrace the little aleph of our lives, reminding ourselves:

We are never done.

Shabbat shalom, v’kol tuv.

Rabbi Irwin Huberman

Fri, September 29 2023 14 Tishrei 5784