The Letters, Refreshed

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February 1, 2013
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B. Elka Abrahamson

The talmudic rabbis, at least from what we are able to learn about them from midrashic conversations, were playful with the 304,805 letters that create the words and verses of the Torah. The Hebrew alphabet, the alef-bet, is comprised of 22 letters; each is assigned a numerical value, a personality, and attributes according to several factors, including the shape, usage, and name of the letter. The 22 letters — in Hebrew, the “otiot,” or “ot” for one letter (also the word for “sign” or “symbol”) — are gorgeous, magical treasures that were handled by our sages with tenderness, toyed with reverently, or rearranged with a measure of sacred mischief. What lives in the soul of those letters? To what sacred secrets do the letters direct us? These are the very tools with which the Holy One created the world. We are taught that God spent time deliberating over which letter would merit the special honor of being placed as the first in the Torah text; each presented its own case and the Creator chose the second letter, bet, because it is, the sages taught, synonymous with brakha, a blessing.

Commenting on the Torah, R. Ben Bag-Bag says: “Turn it over and turn it over, for everything is in it. Look deeply into it, and grow old with it, and spend time over it, and do not stir from it, because there is no greater portion.” (Avot 5:22)

Our sacred text has layer upon layer of meaning, of truth. Each letter is linked to (but never touches) the next letter; each letter takes its place in the scroll with its own miniature personality and character. Together, we have a churning, living well of wisdom from which we can draw instruction as long as we keep turning it over and over. This activity is easier for some people than for others, easier on some days than others, and far more complicated at some crossroads of life’s journey than at other times. The letters that make up the words that form the pages — volumes — of brilliant texts appear so flexible and dynamic at the fingertips of the sages in their study houses. And yet these same characters sometimes appear flat and static during our own attempts at learning. Who among us has not asked, “Where am I in the text? What are the letters trying to say to me? Why am I so incapable of understanding this ancient wisdom?”

We need a teacher to help us spend time with the words differently — a master to set before us the 22 otiyot of the alef-bet so we see these jewels shining anew. Rather than making it easier or reducing it to some flimsier form of its superb greatness, a gifted teacher will help us to refresh the Torah’s meaning; we need to create access to Jewish knowledge from a new perspective.

In Jerusalem, the opportunities for locating such a guide or teacher are many. Such teachers sit at tables and stand at shtenders behind hundreds of stone-walled classrooms, under arches, up creaky stairs, and around corners. They sit in small offices located over bookstores. Sipping sweet, muddy coffee in a cafe that, despite its dingy decor, serves up amazing cheese bourekas, these teachers offer a fresh look at the letters laid out in a stack of opened books on a table by the window. This city is to the seeker of Jewish meaning Judaism’s version of author J.K. Rowling’s magical Diagon Alley, a cobbled street of wizardly wonders hidden from those who are not looking, or who don’t know where to find head-spinning interpretations of Jewish being. Along one stone corridor is David Moss’s studio, which is filled with such magic. There, the letters dance at the hand of a master educator, a teacher-artist, a spellbinding tinkerer. Moss has a rare ability to fashion letters that adhere to the depths of Jewish tradition and also enable a bereft student to re-imagine his or her personal connection to our “turn it and turn it” tradition.

On a desert-hot Jerusalem afternoon, I wandered into this crowded studio, not necessarily seeking but expecting inspiration. I never know what Moss will pull from his stack of mysteriously labeled pizza boxes that store exquisite dreams. On that sweltering day, he shared a well-crafted cardboard vision of the multidimensional Jew, a wooden figurine held up in the center of an intricate map of Jewish being; there was the self (you, me, us), surrounded by a world of Jewish ideas and words organized around essential questions. Mesmerized and moved, I acquired a colorful, wildly conceived fine art print of this map-of-Jewish-being that paints these questions in bright shades. It is a placeholder until I return to the life-size place — a destination in which to explore the sacred Jewish letters of obligation that live around, within, behind, above, and ahead of me. It is a walk through an entirely different kind of text study that invites students to engage in a uniquely conceived conversation at the center of a garden, starting from the bet of breisheit, another beginning.

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Rabbi B. Elka Abrahamson is president of the Wexner Foundation, which is focused on strengthening Jewish leadership in North America and public service leadership in Israel. The programs of the foundation, which is located in New Albany, Ohio, are described at wexnerfoundation.org.

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