| To the Letter |

Back to the Start

As we know in so many areas in Judaism, the end is really just the beginning of something new, something greater

That’s it!

Chazak, chazak v’nischazeik! We have reached the end of the alef-beis!

What more is there to say?

But as we know in so many areas in Judaism, the end is really just the beginning of something new, something greater. At the end of the Torah cycle, we go back to Sefer Bereishis. At the end of Shabbos we start a new week. The end of life on earth heralds the beginning of life in the World to Come.

And when the little cheder boy finishes learning the alef-beis, does he stop right there? No. He moves on to words, to pesukim, to greater mastery of the Torah.

In his book, The Wisdom of the Hebrew Letters,[1] Rabbi Michael Munk discusses how the cyclical nature of the alef-beis is embedded within the creation of the world. According to kabbalistic sources, alef (i.e., Hashem) created Day One utilizing the energies of the next three letters, beis-gimmel-daled, Day Two using hei-vav-zayin, and so on... all the way until Day Seven-Shabbos, which ended with reish-shin-tav.

But on this last day, Hashem added a fourth letter, the alef. Rabbi Munk suggests that the addition of this alef signifies the special relationship we can build with Hashem on Shabbos. Building upon the foundation of all the knowledge we’ve amassed over the course of the week, we now see a renewed and elevated alef, and with that we go into the days that follow.

The week ahead is comprised of the same “letters,” the same incidents and people and problems and gifts, but with the potential to be viewed on a whole new level.

I recently began teaching the “To the Letter” material at Tomer Devorah, the seminary where I work in Eretz Yisrael. The students saw the name of the class on the schedule and they were confused. “Mrs. Kassorla, you’re teaching... alef-beis? Like as in reading?”

“Yes,” I told them, “I’m teaching you how to read.” But not how to read the letters as you have always read them. To see them in a different light, through the eyes of someone older and more mature. To see deeper layers upon layers of truth and wisdom behind each one.

In a mashal I once heard from Mrs. Dina Schoonmaker: If a 40-year-old man is still wearing the same pair of tzitzis he received at his upsheren, how foolish would he look! This is, unfortunately, how we approach mitzvos and the Hebrew letters. We keep viewing them the same way we did as kids, with the same depth of understanding, blind to the endless possibilities each contains.

I work as the eim bayit for the second-year program at Tomer Devorah as well. This year we have a special new theme for our students: “Spiraling Up.” Why return “Shanah Bet” and do all the same tiyulim and Shabbatonim you did the year before? Why read a book for the second time or visit a vacation spot you’ve already been to or speak to your friend today when you already schmoozed for hours yesterday? Because not only is each experience unique — in each experience, you are unique. You’re a different person since you last encountered this wisdom, this beauty, this opportunity. You’re not going in circles; you’re traveling along an upward spiraling path toward greatness.

With this in mind, let’s do a quick review.

Alef (1)  — Emunah; Beis (2) — Bitachon; Gimmel (3) — Giving; Daled (4) — Receiving; Hei (5) — Action; Vav (6) — Connection; Zayin (7) — Purpose; Ches (8) — Transcendence; Tes (9) — Goodness; Yud (10) — Contraction; Chaf (20) — Resilience; Lamed (30) — Achievement; Mem (40) — Revelation; Nun (50) — Loyalty; Samech (60) — Encouragement; Ayin (70) — Perception; Pei (80) — Communication; Tzadi (90) — Righteousness; Kuf (100) — Kedushah; Reish (200) — Leadership; Shin (300) — Change; Tav (400) — Emes.

Could this understanding of the letters change how we look at words? Of how we appreciate the significance of Lashon Hakodesh, of reciting brachos in Hebrew, of using someone’s Hebrew name? With these layers of meaning, we are now similar to the chemistry student, who begins to see every object not in terms of its physical appearance, but in its chemical makeup. A tree isn’t branches and leaves. It’s an eitz, an ayin and a tzadi; similarly, a righteous person who soars above the rest and can perceive what someone in a lower place can’t. And as the pasuk tells us, “He [the tzaddik] shall be as a tree...” (Tehillim 1:3)

A foot is a regel — made of a reish, a gimmel, and a lamed. It is the part of ourselves that can lead us in the direction  of giving, which is the greatest achievement. On the other hand, if we are “led” in the direction of “taking” — that would be a reish and a daled, spelling “reid” — to go down.

Disclaimer: I didn’t see the above two explanations in any particular sources, but with my newfound appreciation for the letters on a backdrop of decades speaking Hebrew and learning Torah, the examples resonate with me. I challenge you to find ones that stem from your new knowledge! Take a look at the pesukim in Bereishis, take note of the first time each letter is used. Or the first time it appears at the start of a word. I assure you, you’ll be amazed at the wisdom that waits to be revealed.

But this isn’t just about how we look at the letters. We began this column describing every person as an “olam katan” — a microcosm of the world. This means that within each of us exists every one of the above middos and energies just waiting to be accessed.

We say in davening that Hashem is “mechadesh betuvo bechol yom tamid ma’aseh bereishis — Hashem renews the creation of the world every day.” But what does it mean to truly live this? Just as the world, which was created with the alef-beis, is constantly being renewed, our own internal world is always being renewed.

This means we’re never stuck on loop! The person who has always defined herself as the “giver” can learn what it means to be a meaningful and effective “taker.” The one who always likes to take a backseat can get in touch with their natural leadership qualities. The person who feels he’s got no intuition and always misinterprets the situation actually has the power of perception, which can be developed.

Of course, natural tendencies can get in the way, but the knowledge that the possibility exists makes all the difference. Let us not end here, both in our learning, our middos, and our understanding of the world. This can be an invitation to go back to the things we “already know” and look at them in a new way. The people we have “summed up” — maybe there is more beneath the surface? The parts of ourselves we think are beyond improvement, so deeply ingrained — maybe there’s room for a fresh perspective?

We’ve just completed the “Season of Teshuvah” — the realization that we’re not stuck, that we can go back to the same places we once were — and respond differently!

And for all the things we do day in and day out, bentshing, going to work, making the kids’ lunches — it’s not just a repetition, it’s an entirely new situation. As my teacher from high school Rabbi Doniel Eisenbach used to tell us right before Minchah everyday: “No one can daven the way you are about to daven now. No one can bring Hashem into This World the way you will in this very moment.”

You may think you’ve done this before — but you haven’t!

Let’s go back to the beginning, and do it even better.


(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 867)

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