February 14, 2008
When my son was about six months old and making wonderful cooing noises, I asked myself: “I wonder what his voice will sound like when he speaks his first word? What will that first word be?”
Admittedly, I hoped he would look at me lovingly with a big smile and say, “Mama.” What actually did happen, I suppose, was much more symbolic of his unique personality and style.
“Grape!” he screamed with glee and pointed at the fruit bowl I was setting on the table.
“Grape?” I repeated staring at him in disbelief.
While I certainly imagined words he might utter, like dog or juice, grape was not even on the radar screen. But I immediately gave my son’s first pronouncement significance and assured myself that this was a child who would surely love fruit, or at least be partial to the color green.
The importance of words in the Jewish tradition cannot be overstated. In the opening chapter of Genesis, we read that God created the world not with fire or flood, but with words. By creating the world with words, we are taught that words carry their own power — to create and destroy — and that words have an independent reality.
Judaism has always regarded Hebrew as a holy tongue, a mystical language in which the letters of each word are imbued with spiritual meaning as symbols of divine communication. The Hebrew word for “letter” is “ot,” which means “sign” or “wonder.” The Hebrew alef-bet contains 22 consonants and five vowels, each one bearing a host of hidden significance.
The talmudic rabbis and Jewish mystics of old believed that through the study, contemplation, and use of letters, a person could reach an inner spiritual awareness that would bring him or her closer to understanding the mysteries of God. During talmudic times, the rabbis developed a system for spiritual awareness and understanding God called gematria, in which each letter is given a numerical value and words with dissimilar meanings but equal numerical values are explored for hidden significance and linkage. The Zohar, the central text of Jewish mysticism, is filled with references to the importance of the alef-bet as a celestial map of the cosmos. It teaches us that “God looked into the letters of the Torah and created the universe.”
Although we tend to think of meditation as a fairly new-age concept, 13th-century Jewish mystic Abraham Ben Samuel Abulafia created a complex system of meditation based on Hebrew letters that could lead one to attain higher spiritual awareness and mystical consciousness. The letters were combined, reversed, and rolled around in such a way that they became the very vehicle by which one could ascend into the transcendent world and experience God.
In our own day, we study the words of the Torah, the sacred Jewish text of Judaism, to understand its meaning in order to engage in what is at the heart of the Jewish religious experience. In its simplest analysis, the Torah is the Jewish story about God’s relationship to the world and to the Jewish people; it is the blueprint for how God expects us to live our lives. God’s wisdom, which is the essence of Torah, takes form in letters, words, and phrases. Each letter — its name, pictorial form, numerical equivalent, and position in the Torah — is ordained by God. This is the reason that when a Torah sofer (scribe) writes a Torah scroll, every letter must be absolutely perfect and even one small cross-out or erasure will invalidate the entire scroll.
My son is now in college and has a fine command of the English language. When I look back, I see how words have been the tools we have all used to develop and grow as a family. Words help define us and our relationships to one another. They help explain our feelings, emotions, hopes, and dreams. Most importantly, they help us create our own universe by providing a framework within which we relate to and understand the world. And through acknowledging the power of words, we are better able to understand the biblical view of God and the majesty of creation.
Amy Lederman is a syndicated columnist, Jewish educator, and the author of To Life! Jewish Reflections on Everyday Living. Her Web site is www.amyhirshberglederman.com.
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