There is a famous question asked about Moshe Rabbeinu. We know that during his lifetime Moshe not only wrote several Torah scrolls, but was capable of writing about himself, as we learn from the following sources: “And the man, Moshe, was very humble more than anyone else on the planet” (Bamidbar 12:3) and “There was no one more trustworthy in all My house besides Moshe” (Bamidbar 12:7). These sources are interpreted as meaning that Moshe Rabbeinu knew that he was the most humble person in the world and that he was on a higher spiritual level than any other human being – yet despite this knowledge he remained the humblest person in the world. How could this be? Indeed, if he knew the truth, did G-D want him to lie to himself and deny every achievement he made in his lifetime?
My Rosh Yeshiva of blessed memory, Rav Alter Chanoch Henoch Leibowitz, went into great detail when answering this question, to define what exactly humility is. I will summarize what he says based on the Chiddushei HaLev [Bamidbar 12:3] (please look at the source material for more detail): ‘The Chovos HaLevavos, Rav Yisrael Salanter and the Chofetz Chaim all agree that a humble person honestly recognizes, in totality, the true level of spirituality and intelligence that he has achieved. It is therefore reasonable for him to feel that he is ‘better’ than everyone else. However, the attribute of humility causes one to emphasize to himself his own shortcomings while focusing on everyone else’s achievements. This, then, is why the truly humble individual is able to continue thinking of himself with humility.
Additionally, a humble person is able to recognize all of his special achievements and strengths, which is the reason why he understands his purpose in life; but, still, he thinks that others are better than him. In this same way, Moshe Rabbeinu was cognizant of all of his achievements, knew he was the most perfect and humble person in the world, and understood that his purpose in life was to be the greatest leader of the generation and to lead the Jewish People out of Egypt and through the desert. Yet he continued to feel that every Jew was better than him, as he was able to recognize the achievements that each individual possessed that he did not.
There is an oft mentioned quote from Yeshiva Slobodka: “Humility, yes; depression, no.” This means that it is forbidden for a person to lack self-worth, since feelings like this will ultimately lead to depression and giving up. There is no doubt that the Chovos Halevavos, Rav Yisrael Salanter and the Chofetz Chaim also felt this way. Granted they said that a humble person feels everyone is better than him, but that is not because he deems himself to be a bad person; rather, it is because he focuses on elevating others, on the tremendous value of everyone else, judging all of their actions favorably. Thus a truly humble person does not feel depression and at a loss for hope; on the contrary – he feels great joy and spiritual satisfaction at being able to reach this incredibly high spiritual level of humility. (See also “Majesty of Man” – essays on the weekly Torah readings adapted from the talks of Rabbi A. Henoch Leibowitz zt”l, parashas Vayikra, page 165.)
Against this back drop, we find something very peculiar. The first verse of the Book of Leviticus (Vayikra 1:1) starts with “Vayikra el Moshe” [“And He called to Moses.”] Vayikra in Hebrew is spelled ויקרא. In the Torah scroll the last letter of the word, an aleph [[א, is written shorter than the rest of the word.
The Mahara”m MiRotenberg says that the reason why the aleph is small is because “Moshe was great and humble and he wanted to write ויקר without an aleph which means ‘a happenstance,’ meaning G-D only spoke to Moshe through dreams. However Hashem told him to write ויקרא in full. Moshes did not want to write this explicitly because of his humility but he said he will write the aleph smaller than other alephs in the Torah.”
According to what was said above, how could it be that Moshe wanted to imply that Hashem only spoke to him through dreams by pure happenstance? In truth Hashem called on Moshe whenever He wanted, at the spur of the moment; Moshe was spiritually ready and able to speak to Hashem when needed. Would it not be a lie to erase the aleph from the word Vayikra? How is this true humility!?
One can find an answer to this question in the gemara Bava Metzia 23b which quotes Rav Yehuda in the name of Shmuel (Shmuel is Shmuel Hakatan, known to be a very humble sage). He said that there are 3 things which rabbis are known to “switch their words” about, one of them being a tractate. Rashi explains that this means that if someone asks a rabbi if he knows a certain tractate of Gemara by heart (thoroughly back and forth) and he indeed does, the rabbi can still reply no and this is considered acting humbly.
Tosfos there asks: how it is possible for a rabbi to deny such a thing? There is a gemara in Kiddushin 30a which quotes a verse from Shema that says that a rabbi should ‘have his teachings on the tip of his tongue for if anyone asks him a question he should not hesitate and answer rather he should answer immediately’ (ideally). Tosfos answers by saying that only applies if a person comes over to a rabbi with a practical question or to learn from him; but if he is coming just to test the rabbi, to see if he knows his stuff, the rabbi is permitted to switch the truth and say that he never learned it.
In a similar vein we can understand where Moshe Rabbeinu was coming from. Everyone knew already that Hashem spoke to Moshe directly and whenever He needed to; indeed, it even took place front of the Tent of Meeting, in broad daylight! Yet Moshe felt that he did not have to show it off and publicize it. His speaking to G-D was like the tractates learnt by the rabbis, since G-D was his teacher. Anything Moshe spoke to G-D about was Torah. And just as it is a sign of humility for a rabbi who is being tested to deny learning a certain tractate in which he is actually an expert in order not to flaunt his knowledge, so too Moshe felt no need to spell out explicitly that G-D called on him in broad daylight, out of true humility. He wasn’t trying to lie or deny the truth. Moshe knew who he was and knew that everyone else knew who he was as well; he simply did not need to flaunt this to the world. That is true humility. Ultimately, however, Hashem overruled Moshe, as the word Vayikra is completely spelled out in the Torah. But from the fact that Vayikra is written with a small aleph, we see that Hashem agreed with Moshe that his intentions were proper.