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The Day the Letters Spoke

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by Susan Proctor
 
The Torah does not tell us how Abraham died. There is a Midrash, however, that tells us both how Abraham died and why Hebrew has silent letters. According to this Midrash, Abraham was given the entire Hebrew alphabet and by reciting the letters coupled with movement, he used the energy of the letters to create golem – creatures without souls – to act as servants and do his bidding. The legend further says that one of the golem struck him with a rock between the eyes and killed him. This saddened God and God said, my children are not ready for complete knowledge of me. I shall remove some of the letters so that each may seek me according to his own understanding.
 
In another Midrash, we learn Moses, angered by seeing the golden calf, threw down the tablets and as the tablets broke, the Hebrew letters flew back up to God. These are but two of many stories regaling the mysteries and powers of the Hebrew letters. Of course, Kabballah holds a myriad of teachings delving into layers of meanings to be found in the letters. As modern Jews, many may regard these stories as just that – stories. But if we are paying attention, it is possible the letters will still speak to us today as they did to our forefathers and mothers and to me when I was preparing for my Anshei Mitzvah. It had to do with some vows and some gossip.
 
Vows are not to be taken lightly in Judaism. On the eve of the holiest day of the year, Yom Kippur, we chant Kol Nidre– a prayer asking to be released from vows we made that we could not keep and forgiveness for those forced to say yes when they meant no. Vows are serious business. Take for example, the scene in Fiddler on the Roof, when Tzeital goes to her father and tells him she is in love with Motel, a poor tailor and wishes to marry him. She tells her father they’ve  given each other a vow. Tevye has already made a match with Lazar Wolf, an older man but a successful butcher. A match with Lazar Wolf would assure his daughter’s future. He laments – this poor tailor – what can he give her?  After laboriously weighing his daughter’s wishes with the profitable match he’s made, he keeps coming back to "they gave each other a vow!" And in the end, the vow trumps tradition – the couple are married!
 
A good year or more prior to my beginning to study for my Anshei Mitzvah, I had made a personal vow not to have anything to do with gossip – not to start it, not to listen to it, not to repeat it and I had kept my vow. But during the course of my study, I not only broke my vow, I became the gossip queen – ridiculing the women in the morning Anshei Mitzvah class. I was in the evening class with women who worked and we deemed ourselves far more serious students than those in the morning class, comprised of – according to me - the ‘ladies who lunch’ thus named because of the lunch outings we assumed often followed class and who, again according to me, only took the class in the first place because their kids were becoming b’nai mitzvah and it’d be a fun thing to do together and, of course, for the party. At the beginning of each class our teacher would give us handouts the morning class had prepared of their suggestions for menus, invitations, decorations - every plan more lavish than the last and carrying a budget that our members read with disbelief. Such doings only fueled the chasm between the groups. My lesson was about to begin!
 
My portion for my Anshei Mitzvah from Kedoshim included the verse from Leviticus 19: 15 Hebrew – lo ti sa p’nai…I kept chanting the verse as lo ti sar p’nai… putting a resh on the end of sa. I knew I was doing it – but never bothered to find out why…I’d just say, damn! I did it again! One Sunday afternoon, I was in the temple sanctuary practicing my portion from the Torah which I would use in the service and God essentially said – OK, if you won’t pay attention to the resh I sent you, I’ll send the one person you do not want to disappoint and maybe you will listen to him…and as I chanted, down the aisle walked our cantor – he said, “that was excellent –  you added a resh on sa” but otherwise, it was perfect."
 
OK, got it! As soon as I walked in my house, I grabbed Rabbi Lawrence Kushner’s Book of Letters and looked up Resh. Here’s what I read. Resh is the Yetzer Ha-ra (evil inclination) – the inescapable wish to believe that you are closer to God than anyone else. That’s why it goes up and down as a gossip, a tale bearer and commits the gravest sin L’Shon hara, the evil tongue. So arrogant that it believes it can speak about someone else. L’Shon hara is in the same category as murder because to bring blood to someone’s face is the same as to have spilled blood. It harms the one who speaks, the ones who hear and the one who is spoken about.
 
The English translation for my portion was: You shall not render an unfair decision: do not favor the poor or show deference to the rich: judge your kinsman fairly.  I was taken aback to say the least, that I had randomly been assigned the very portion that would show me the exactly where I had gone off course. The letters had clearly instructed me.  
 
Again, a teaching of Rabbi Lawrence Kushner came to mind, "Our whole life we struggle to know God’s will. We question, we study, we pray and yet all too often it remains elusive but once we do know God’s will, whenever we know it and how ever we know it, there are only two choices – obedience or sin." Obedience meant I had to go to my study group and admit what I had done and ask their forgiveness for not only committing L’shon hara but for drawing them into this gravest of sins. I had to confess and ask forgiveness from the women who had borne the brunt of my gossip. During our gathering just before the service, I said to them, “You know, when we began our study, being in separate classes we didn’t interact, didn’t get know each other and I felt that we really had nothing in common and your priority was the party but I was wrong.
 
"Today we are one class as we share this experience and I hope we can continue studying together”. It maybe not sufficient, but it was the best I could muster and was apparently well received. Only then could I ask God’s forgiveness and actually feel being the warmth of teshuva – that unique peace reserved for those have strayed, repented and returned. I chanted my Torah portion beautifully that Shabbat and never added the resh again.  
 
I still have to remain on guard lest I once again succumb to the seductive resh. A humbling experience to be sure; yet one that allowed me a glimpse into the mystery of the letters, our language of prayer. Resh revealed itself as my letter in the Torah, my teacher. The letter that led me to the end of pretending and to the entrance on ruah ha-kadosh, the holy spirit.
 
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