Parashat Vayikra

Every Shabbat spent at camp, our campers engage in studying the weekly Torah portion. On Shabbat afternoons, the kikar is dotted with circles of campers. From the basketball court to the agam (lake), conversations about Jewish identity, the People of Israel, or our lives at camp fill the sacred Shabbat space. We just completed the book of Shemot, in which details for creating such a holy space – the mishkan – were outlined.

This week, we begin the book of Vayikra, its opening section a difficult one to approach given its nitty-gritty details surrounding the korbanot (sacrifices). God calls upon Moshe to relate to the people of Israel the laws of the sacrifice, giving unto Moshe yet another important task as the leader of his people. As we know from the book of Shemot, Moshe does not take his responsibilities lightly; he is humble and often hesitant, skeptical of his leadership skills.

This notable aspect of Moshe’s personality is poetically illustrated within the first word of the book of Vayikra. In every Torah scroll, the final aleph of the word vayikra, meaning “and God called,” is written noticeably smaller than any other letter. The midrash tells us that when God instructed Moshe to write down this word in the Torah, Moshe was reluctant to do so as the word so clearly reflected his unique, close relationship with God and his distinct role as leader of the children of Israel. The aleph is thus a symbol of the paradox of Moshe’s role as leader; its presence necessary within the word itself to indicate Moshe as rabbeinu, our teacher and prophet, but its size a marker of Moshe’s unwavering humility.

When I was a camper, I had no problem taking up vocal space during Shabbat discussion groups from week to week. I spoke freely and without hesitation, often failing to realize that I may not have been leaving space for my peers to share their insights. As I matured, I came to understand the importance of making yourself smaller when appropriate, when you find yourself forgetting that humility is a key piece of successful leadership. The small aleph of vayikra is a reminder that we should indeed reduce the size of the aleph in ani (I, me) when we find ourselves overstepping boundaries or devaluing and not listening to others.

Camp, like vayikra’s aleph, is itself a paradox in leadership; we share shelf space with our bunkmates, meals are served family style, the nikayon (cleaning) chart indicates every person’s daily cleaning task within the tzrif (cabin), the measure of a successful aidah musical is not the strength of individual voices but the power and energy of the chorus. Yet it is within this unique community that we each learn how to exercise effective leadership. Each of us has the opportunity to lead our team as a Yom Sport captain, to belt out the final song of our musical, to lead the entire camp in Kabbalat Shabbat overlooking Lake Buckatabon, or to share our thoughts on the weekly parshah in a circle of friends. In taking on the roles of leadership camp offers both on special occasions and in the day-to-day of camp life – acting as a meltzar (waiter) during meals, leading Shacharit (morning services), picking up a piece of trash – we learn that leading also means being a sensitive member of a team. Camp is a space in which we are sometimes empowered and other times humbled.

As we begin a new book of Torah, may the little aleph of Vayikra help us to remember this week and always to be mindful of the space we occupy as leaders, and to always leave room for the voices of others.