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The Word for Nothing Means Everything
Were you to ask what our tradition attributes as the first thing created by God, you no doubt would be tempted to go to the first verse of the Torah, the road map of creation and our blueprint for Jewish life.
Bereshit bara Elokim et hashamayim v'et ha'aretz: "In the beginning of God's creating the heavens and the earth" would be a proper translation. So what was created first, heaven or earth? Or maybe, something else?
Listen to this fascinating rabbinic understanding based upon a careful read and an attentive ear to the verse. Notice that the word et is prominent in the verse. Et is comprised of two Hebrew letters, aleph and tav. In modern Hebrew, you can hardly make a move without confronting and bumping into this small, staccato word. It must always appear before a direct object, and it defies translation.
History records that David Ben-Gurion proposed to the Society of Hebrew Language the nullification of this small, two-lettered Hebrew word on the theory that it means nothing. But this Israeli founding father did not grasp an essential Jewish truth. When answering the question of what was created first, a challenging and intriguing rabbinic tradition replied with et. What was created first was the first Hebrew letter, aleph, with the last Hebrew letter, tav -- and by extension, everything in between.
In a word, what God created first in our world was the alphabet. Through the commingling of letters, words were formed, and here's the punchline -- words create worlds. Of course, the inverse of this equation must also be true: If words create, they can also destroy. If words have the innate ability to "raise up," they also have the inherent ability to "raze down."
It is, to me, no mystery that the 2000 edition of Time magazine determined that the most seminal event of the previous two millennia was the invention of the printing press. What is a printing press if not the ability to have words come together to be disseminated far and wide.
So it would seem that Ben-Gurion got this one wrong.
The word et does not mean "nothing"; it means everything.
Let me share with you a phenomenal story told by a professor of mine at Yeshiva University, Rabbi Benjamin Blech. You might recognize his name, as he is the author of the popular Complete Idiot's Guide to Judaism series. He was in the middle of a lecture when a woman knocked on the door and entered -- not the everyday occurrence, to be sure.
She had to interrupt him then and there, as it was her first opportunity to find him and thank him. This woman had just been released from the hospital after a horrible car accident. It seems that she was listening to one of his popular lectures on Judaism when the accident occurred.
Apparently, the force of the accident jammed the tape into the cassette, and for the several long minutes that it took for the ambulance to arrive, she kept hearing the voice of this rabbi repeating, v'chai bahem: "You shall live by them." She said that it was the tone of his voice and the force of the message that made her struggle to remain conscious and fight for her life. Yes, she was grateful to her doctor, but she was even more grateful to this man.
This week, the Torah speaks of a manifestation called tza'ra' at, usually translated as "leprosy." The Talmud declares that the root cause and etiology of this phenomenon was the sin of malicious speech -- lashon hara.
How brilliant and perspicacious were our rabbis in Pirkei Avot, The Ethics of the Fathers, when they teach: "With 10 utterances was the world created." Words not only influence and inspire; they transform, fashion, create and heal. Indeed, Judaism is not only concerned with what we put into our mouths, but also what comes out of them.
Rabbi David Gutterman is the executive director of the Vaad: Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia.