Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Dvar Torah - Zohar: Spirit of Words and Letters

This is a Dvar Torah that I gave this past Shabbat Toldot (11/21/09) at the Jerusalem Reconstructionist Minyan.  It in I share my wonder at the power of words.


Baruch She'emar V'ha'ya ha'olam -
Blessed is the one who spoke and the world WAS.
We chant these words each morning - but do we truly comprehend - in our sleepy shacharit selves - what these words really mean?

Blessed is the one who spoke and the world WAS.

What Power there is in the ability to create with words! We acknowledge daily that our Creator has that power - but do we realize that we have it too?

We, human beings, are created b'Tzelem Elokim, in Gd's image.  As Jews we spend our lives trying to emulate Gd's attributes - mercy, justice, forgiveness, loving kindness.  Just as Gd rested on the Shabbat after a week of work and creativity, so too do we rest. And Just as Gd created the world with a word, so too do we create with words.  Granted, we don't create on such a grand scale as an entire world - but we certainly have the ability, the power, to impact those around us, to change our reality.

We have the ability to nurture and create - AND we have the ability to wound and destroy.

There are several stories in our tradition about how the world was created. One of my favorites is from the Zohar, a 13th century book of mysticism that is one of the central texts in Kabbalah. It's a story about how Gd created the world with letters, the building blocks of these words that we've been discussing.

But first, a quote from Sefer Yetzirah - the Book of Foundation- another Kabbalistic text. You'll pardon my loose translation.
ספר יצירה פרק ב' משנה ב

עֶשְׂרִים וּשְׁתַּים אווֹתִיויּוֹת חָקְקָן חָצְבָן צָרְפָן שָׁקְלָן וְהֵמִירָן וְצָר בָּהֶם אֶת כָּל הַיְּצוּר וְאֶת כָּל הֶעָתִיד לָצוּר׃

“With 22 letters Gd embossed, chiseled, weighed, changed, refined, and shaped. AND with them formed/created all beings which are in existence and all those which will be formed in all time to come. “

So not only do words have power, but these much smaller units, these letters, have the power to create as well! They are extremely active. Look what they can do! They are expert artisans! With them we can become expert artisans - shaping and crafting our thoughts and utterances in order to have the truest form, to have the most impact.

In Bereshit Rabba there is a midrash that the Torah was created 2000 years before the world. During that 2000 years, apparently Gd was hanging out, contemplating and playing with the letters of the alphabet. Let us now, together, imagine the story of the creation of the Torah and therefore of the world. We are at the moment when Gd was ready to create the world….

Just as a reminder, The torah begins with the words Beresheit Bara Elohim Et...
What letter does the Torah being with?  (Answer: Beit ב)
What letter do we normally think of as the first letter? (Answer: Aleph א)
So why does the torah begin with the second letter Beit ב?
Let me tell you the story from the beginning of the Zohar.

It begins as follows:

Rav Hanmuna Sava said: "Before creation began, the alphabetical letters were in reversed order; thus, the two first words in the Book of Genesis, berashith, bara, begin with Bet; the next two, Alohim, ath, with Aleph. Why did it not commence with A, the first letter? The reason of this inversion is as follows: For two thousand years before the creation of the world the letters were concealed and hidden, being objects of divine pleasure and delight.

"When the Divine Being, however, willed to create the world, all the letters appeared before Him, from last to first.

The Zohar goes on to detail how each letter appeared before the Kaddosh Baruch Hu and said "Create the world with me because...." And until Gd reached the predetermined letter, Gd would give them a reason that the world was NOT to be built with them and send them away.

These reasons were in 3 main categories:

The first category of rejection is composed of letters that make up words with negative connotations. 

-The last letter of the aleph bet went first - the TAV - and although it anchors the word EMET, truth,  it was rejected because it also anchor the word  MAVET  - death.

-The  ש,  ר, ק  are rejected because together they make up the word שקר and Gd did not want the world to be built on lies. And the Lies that are especially dangerous are the ones that contain a grain of truth in them.

The next category of rejection was due to how the letter physically appeared.

-So although the letter פ stands for the word Purkena which earns the redemption it was not chosen  because it "signifies hidden transgression, like a serpent striking, then tucking its head back into its body. Just so, one who sins bows his head, stretching out his hands."

-The letter ט had a similar problem. Although the Gd is called in Psalms "Tov V'Yashar - good and upright" Gd responds that the letter ט will not be used in the creation of the world, because the goodness is hidden within it and concealed from sight as it is written " How abundant is Your goodness that you have hidden it away for those in awe of You. (Psalms 31:20) 

The final category of rejection was because the letter already had an important purpose and could not be spared from that role without dire consequences to the universe.
-For example, the letter Samech stands for SMICHA or support. It is needed to support the letter NUN which stands for NOFLIM which means fallen. As in the expression Somech Hashem  (Gd supports all who fall, Psalms 145: 14)

-The Dalet and Gimel have a similar story. Dalet stands for DELET which means poverty and Gimel for GOMEL as in help or the benefactor. So together they sustain each other.

After reviewing nearly all the letters, the Bet comes before Gd.

Then came B and said: "Create the world by me, because I am the initial letter of beracha (blessing) and through me all will bless you, both in the world above as in the world below." "Indeed by you I will create the world." said the Holy One, "You will be the beginning of creation."

What's interesting here is that the Aleph is still remaining, as this Alphabet Parade began with the letter TAV and went backwards. But after the Bet left, the Aleph did not appear before Gd until Gd called out to it and asked it why it hadn't appeared like all the other letters? The Aleph's reply - basically what was the point? It was obvious from BET's face that it had received the prize, and it wouldn't become the "monarch of the universe" to take it back and give it to another. So why bother showing up.  At this Gd reminded Aleph that it shall be the first of all the letters, and that Gd's unity - ACHDUT- is symbolized by it. "With you all counting begins and every deed in the world. No union is actualized except by the Aleph."

Gd made high, large letters and low small letters - from last to first. So we find "BET BET - BERESHIT BARA and ALEPH ALEPH - ALOHIM AET." The letters above and below representing the upper world -  the heavens and the lower world - earth. I see this repetition of letters as a representation of our relationship and partnership with Gd. Bereshit is Gd’s blessing, Gd’s beginning of creating the world – Bara is our blessing and our ability to continue in that creation.  Alohim is Gd’s name, the name that stresses the attributes of Justice, Might, and Creativity – At (et) is a preposition – that’s us! – there are so many possibilities that can arise after a preposition!

I first chose this story, well, because I’ve been studying Kabbalah with some amazing teachers and wanted to share some of the Torah that I’ve learned. But also, I knew there was a connection between this story and Parashat Toldot, but I just couldn’t figure out what to say at first. There is so much going on in it - especially around the birthright - and most of my thoughts felt rather trite.

But we see in this week's parashah the power of words. We see the blessings that can be bestowed with them and the problems that can be created with them. We see the impact of rash vows, of promises, of schemes, of simple speech.

There are modern implications to this birthright story as well. I spent the last two days in Bethlehem with the group Encounter - meeting Palestinians and learning about the issues at hand.  We KNOW that violence will not solve the problems that face Israel and the Palestinians. We also KNOW that words can have an impact - words can make a difference if people are just willing to meet, to talk and most importantly to listen.
The world, our world, was created through these amazingly powerful, active letters, the building blocks of the words that make up our daily lives.

My prayer for all of us is that we learn to choose our words carefully, down to each and every letter, so that they can be received in the positive way that we intend and that their final result and is peace and a better world.

-De Manhar, Nurho, trans.: Zohar: Bereshith to Lekh Lekha, ed. by John Hare (HTML at sacred-texts.com)
-Leader, Avraham. Beit Midrash Nava Tehilla, Fall 2009 (Thank you Avraham for teaching me the text in Aramaic and English with only the occasional English word thrown in.)
-Matt, Daniel C. (Translator). The Zohar: Pritzker Edition, Vol. 1
-Rothberg, Shaiya.  Conservative Yeshiva, Fall 2009

To learn more about Encounter go to:   www.encounterprograms.org

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