The last bit of bread and honey has been supped and the last circle danced, the high of the holidays is ebbing and before us is the renewal of a Beginning: Yet again we begin the cycle of Torah reading.
This Shabbat takes its special name, Shabbat Bereishit, from the first word of the Torah, which means “In the Beginning…” It is the Shabbat of Beginnings.
The first letter of the very first word in the Torah is the letter “Bet” of Bereshit. This Bet is an Ot Meshunah, an unusual letter, written larger than normal in the scroll because of its special status. The Masoretes refer to it as “Bet Rabbati”.
Why is this Bet writ large? What is it trying to teach us?
The thing about the Aleph Bet, and about language in general, is that it is rather miraculous. You are reading these words right now, which are made up of individual letters in certain combinations with spaces in between, and somehow, because we have an agreed-upon system called English, you can understand me through these little shapes arranged in a certain order.
And I can’t help but notice how language plays a lead role in the genesis of the world and of human history in our Bereshit creation narrative.
וַיֹּאמֶר אֱלֹהִים, יְהִי אוֹר; וַיְהִי-אוֹר.
Said G!d, “Let there be light,” and there was light…
Every culture has a story about where we all came from. But in our story, the generation of all things ex nihilo sprang from the spoken word. It was G!d’s utterances, the use of speech, that created the universe and all within it.
Words created the world (and by the way, our tradition teaches that the act of creation never ceased – it continues every moment of every day) and G!d used words to bless the world as “good”. The breath of life innervated the clay — the same breath we use to speak to one another– and hence man and woman were created in G!d’s own image. G!d created the concept of a rest day – Shabbat – and blessed that, too.
And yet. Language is like water: it takes many forms. Language can overwhelm and nourish. Unite and divide. Create and destroy.
The Serpent is introduced into the story, and he uses language to trick, pervert the truth, to deceive, and to seduce. We witness the first lie.
A Midrash tells us that the Serpent had legs and was punished by losing them. Why? What was his sin? Professor Eli Wiesel taught me that, indeed, the Serpent was the first to tell lies. Lies have legs and, unfortunately, they travel all over. And so, the Serpent lost his legs.
After Chava and Adam eat from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, G!d uses language to ask the first divine question of humanity: Eicha? “Where are you?”
And Adam’s answer to that question contains the first accusation – the first laying of blame on another (Adam on Chava), and then the second (Chava blaming the Serpent).
What follows is G!d’s first curse on creation (the Serpent gets it) and then Adam and Chava are sentenced with the consequences of their actions. Death was introduced into the world.
But the story continues. Paradise lost, the first family adds two sons to the world, Cain and Hevel. When his younger brother’s offering is favored by G!d, Cain is dejected. Frustrated, jealous, humiliated, he broods. In response, G!d gives the first pep-talk,
הֲל֤וֹא אִם־תֵּיטִיב֙ שְׂאֵ֔ת וְאִם֙ לֹ֣א תֵיטִ֔יב לַפֶּ֖תַח חַטָּ֣את רֹבֵ֑ץ וְאֵלֶ֙יךָ֙ תְּשׁ֣וּקָת֔וֹ וְאַתָּ֖ה תִּמְשָׁל־בּֽוֹ׃
Surely, if you improve yourself, you will be forgiven. But if you do not improve yourself, transgression crouches at the door. Its desire is toward you, yet thou mayest conquer it.
This uplifting (yet warning) speech by G!d seems to work…at first. Cain goes to speak to his brother. Perhaps these two brothers can chat with each other and reconcile thereby.
And here we have an oddity in the text, but you have to look closely to see it. And you have to look in the original Hebrew, because every English translation I’ve ever seen “corrects” this crucial omission.
וַיֹּ֥אמֶר קַ֖יִן אֶל־הֶ֣בֶל אָחִ֑יו וַֽיְהִי֙ בִּהְיוֹתָ֣ם בַּשָּׂדֶ֔ה וַיָּ֥קָם קַ֛יִן אֶל־הֶ֥בֶל אָחִ֖יו וַיַּהַרְגֵֽהוּ׃
The verse is usually translated thus: “And Cain spoke unto Abel his brother. And it came to pass, when they were in the field, that Cain rose up against Abel his brother, and slew him.”
But Cain speaking to and then striking down his brother is one verse; not two. There shouldn’t be a period. smack in the middle of the verse.
At most, it should be a half-stop, a semi-colon, because it is the midpoint of the verse. But never a full stop.
Let’s look again, and break up the verse according to the trope:
And Cain spoke unto Abel his brother —
and it happened when they were in the field that Cain rose up against Hevel his brother and killed him.
What’s missing from the narrative? I’ll tell you: What Cain said to his brother.
I’ll never forget the lesson that Professor Elie Wiesel gave us, his pupils, this week eight years ago:
“Why does the text not tell us what Cain said to his brother? Because the words failed. When language fails, violence follows. When language dies, then violence becomes another language.”
Professor Wiesel spoke softly to us, saying, “We don’t talk with each other. We shout. We have so many means of communication. And what do we communicate?
Never before have so many people spoken so harshly about each other or to each other. Civility is gone, as well as tenderness, in discourse.”
The legacy of language, its failures and successes, its unparalleled ability to divide and unite human beings, is a theme that runs through the rest of Bereshit, and indeed, through the Torah entire.
Brother against brother, blessings turning to curses, kind words morphing into antagonism morphing into murderous intentions, happens again and again through many generations of Jewish families in the Torah. After language fails Cain–or he fails it–and Hevel suffers, Avraham and Sarah’s sons Ishmael and Isaac experience strife because of the spoken word. Ishmael mocks Isaac, and as a result is thrown out of the house with his mother, Hagar.
In the next generation, whenever Yaacov and Esav speak to each other, it is all to further their own ends; neither speaks for the benefit of the other. The blessing fiasco, when Yaacov takes Esav’s blessing from their father (after purchasing it earlier for a bowl of lentils) could have ended in murder had Rivka not sent her son Yaacov away from his infuriated brother.
In the next generation, Yaacov’s sons have the longest story cycle in the Torah. In the beginning, Yosef and his brothers cannot speak peaceably to each other. Yosef is a young gossiper and tale bearer, yet the favorite son, and his brothers nearly kill him for it.
It is only Yosef’s sons, Ephraim and Menashe, who, it seems, are the first pair of Jewish brothers who dwell together in peace. And yet. The Torah does not record a single word that they spoke to one another. Like Cain and Hevel, their conversations are hidden from us. However, the outcome of their relationship could not be more different. No Jewish parent ever names their son Cain or Hevel. But Jews all over the world, for millennia, have blessed their sons in the names of Menashe and Ephraim on Shabbat eve: two siblings who broke the cycle of hateful speech begun by Cain so many many generations before.
And the next generation of siblings that we follow after Yosef’s sons are a new set of siblings: Aharon, Miriam, and Moshe. A sibling trio who rose up and banded together like no other brothers or sisters did before or since, to speak on behalf of each other, to lift each other up when one of them fell, to protect each other from all harm. And together they accomplished what none of them could possibly have done alone: they liberated the Jewish people from slavery in Egypt and lead them through the desert to the Promised Land.
Perhaps this is why Miriam was punished by G!d so swiftly with Tzaraat (a skin disease) for speaking with Aaron behind their brothers’ back — such behavior was beneath her, and threatened to undermine their entire sibling relationship, which would have put the whole Jewish people in jeopardy. She repented, and in part because Moshe defended his sister directly, and unabashedly, to G!d, Miriam reconciled with her brother in peace, and the narrative moved on.
The wise King Solomon once wrote:
מָוֶת וְחַיִּים, בְּיַד-לָשׁוֹן; וְאֹהֲבֶיהָ, יֹאכַל פִּרְיָהּ
Death and life are in the power of the tongue; and they that love it shall eat of its fruit. (Proverbs 18:21)
Perhaps language was the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. All humanity has since eaten that fruit, and those who love life and those who love death use language differently and plant the seeds of their speech accordingly. These plants grow and spread, and cover the earth for better or for worse.
We’ve all heard the adage that “The pen is mightier than the sword”; the Talmud (Arachin 15b) explains why: Negative speech is even worse than a sword since it kills many people, even at a great distance.
Why is the Bet at the beginning of the Torah writ large? I will tell you the truth: I do not know. That’s not to say that I haven’t found answers in the decades since I first asked this question: I’ve found many. But not yet one that satisfies or truly explains the phenomenon.
Perhaps the Bet is larger than the rest because it stands for blessing, for as the Midrash says, we might have expected the Torah to begin with the first letter of the Aleph Bet — the letter Aleph — rather than the second letter, Bet. The Midrash answers that G!d chose to begin the Torah with the letter Bet because it is the first word of Baruch, “Blessed”, whereas the letter Aleph is the first letter of the word Arur, “Cursed”.
Perhaps the Bet is larger because it is not the first letter. After all, even when a Jew begins at the beginning, s/he always bears in mind that which came before. There is a concept in our tradition that Wisdom existed before the creation of the universe. There is another tradition that teaches us that our world was not the first to be created by G!d – in fact, there were many worlds which were created and destroyed before our own.
Perhaps the Bet is larger because it represents the number two, and therefore the duality of creation:
Light and darkness
Life and death
War and peace
Truth and falsehood
Wisdom and folly
Curse and blessing
Perhaps the mystery of the large Bet is like the mystery of creation: unfathomable. Hidden.
Even so, perhaps the Bet is speaking to us, calling out from the parchment of the Torah. Says the letter Bet, “Behold I place before you a Blessing and not a Curse. Choose to speak life. Speak blessings. Bite back curses. Do not be a servant of death, like the Serpent.”
In truth, even G!d had to bless this world. It is not blessed in and of itself. For blessings to exist, at least in our tradition, they have to be spoken into being by someone with the proper and good intentions. The Bet, perhaps, is asking us to be that person.
This week is the Shabbat of Beginnings.
All of humanity are siblings.
What will you say to your brother?
This piece is dedicated to the memory of my maternal great-grandmother, whose birthday is Shabbat Bereshit. May her neshamah have an aliyah.