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Aleph or Bet: Dr. Shula Laderman with a Festive Torah Tale

“Aleph! Aleph! Although I shall create the world through the letter bet you will be the first of all the letters opening the word “God”…”

As we enter Sukkot and begin to prepare for Simchat Torah, Dr. Shula Laderman, lecturer in Judaism and the Arts at The Schechter Institute of Jewish Studiesrecounts a midrash that illustrates the importance of the Hebrew letters aleph and bet. How was it decided which letter would appear first in the Torah?

Read the accompanying article below:

On Simchat Torah we conclude the reading of the Five Books of Moses and we start from Bereshit (Genesis), the first parasha that describes the creation. The first verse says בְּרֵאשִׁית, בָּרָא אֱלֹהִים, אֵת הַשָּׁמַיִם, וְאֵת הָאָרֶץ translated as “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth”. Followed by the verse: “And God said: ‘Let there be light.’ And there was light” and then “And God saw the light, that it was good; and God divided the light from the darkness.” So it continues day after day using the words “God said” and “God saw.” The message we derive from this chapter is that God created the world through words and after the creations of each day He observed and saw VaYAR.  Thus the Jewish Bible emphasizes the importance of the spoken and the written word but also the importance of the visual act, of seeing. In reading the biblical text we use the Midrash as an interpretive mechanism that offers lenses through which we can understand the meaning of the written words.

Such is Midrash Ha-Otiyyot, an ancient midrash that was developed in the book of Zohar as an explanation of the two first words of the book of Genesis Bereshit Barah both opening with the letter B. This midrash was used by Mordecai Ardon (1896–1992) in the ten tapestries he designed, each 195×265 cm.

The midrash states that when God wanted to create the world using the Hebrew AlphaBet as forms the Torah’s texts, all the letters appear before Him one by one in reverse order to offer themselves as the letter that will be used to create the world.  The letter tav entered first and said: “May it be your will Master of the worlds to create the world through me, because I am the seal on Your signal ring: Truth and You are called Truth It is only proper that the king should begin with the letter of Truth and create the world through me.” The Holy One, blessed be He said to her: “you are beautiful and deserving but it is not right that the world should be created through you, because you are the seal of death and since this is so it is not right that the world should be created through you.” She departed.

One by one the letters appear and God finds faults with each one. Finally, the letter bet entered. She said to Him: “Master of the world may it be Your will to create the world through me, because it is through me that they bless you in the upper and lower worlds.” It also seems to accentuate the three enclosed sides of the bet turned toward the opening at the front, emphasizing the circumscribed shape of the letter and focusing on the directed openness that brings with it appreciation, gratitude, and the ability to bless – le-varekh– the Creation, to say “Barukh Atah” (Atah, meaning Thou) and thus bless God in both the heavenly and the earthly worlds.

The Holy One blessed be He, said to her: “Yes, to be sure, I shall create the world through you and you shall be at the forefront of the creation of world. The world can exist only if the people know how to say a Bracha, meaning how to be grateful the gift of the created universe, treasure it and appreciate it.

The Midrash continues to tell us about the letter aleph that arose but did not enter. The Holy One blessed be He, said to her: “Why do you not come into My presence like the other letters?” She said to Him: “Master of the world since I have seen all the other letters leaving Your presence without success, what point is there?  Moreover, You have given this great gift to the letter bet and it would not be right for a king to take away a present that he has given to his servant and give it to someone else.”

The Holy One blessed be He said to her: “Aleph aleph although I shall create the world through the letter bet you will be the first of all the letters opening the word God, ELOHIM, who gave the Torah and revealed Himself as ANOCHI.  God has no unification except through you, the letter aleph. Hear O Israel the Lord is our God the Lord is ONE.”  

Thus the tapestry of Aleph, the last Tapestry expresses the drama of creation where we see the small graphic images of all the creatures described in the Bet tapestry turn to be the letters of the Hebrew alphabet erupting from the letter Aleph.

Dr. Shula Laderman worked for many years as a computer programmer and planner at Shaare Zedek Hospital in Jerusalem. While working there, she studied at  the Hebrew University in Jerusalem towards her Ph.D.,  which she received in  2000. Her topic of research is the “Artist as an Interpreter” – visual interpretation of the Bible in Jewish and Christian Art. She is the author of: Images of Cosmology in Jewish and Byzantine Art- God’s Blueprint of Creation and is co-author with the artist Avner Moriah of: The Illuminated Torah. She taught for many years at Bar Ilan University as well as at the Schechter Institute, where she continues to teach in the Judaism and the Arts track (which she directed in the past).

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