B'reishit: Divine Et-iquette

Some months ago on Jeopardy! a seminary student appeared as a contestant.  During his brief on-air interview, he offered, and was invited, to recite the first verse of the Bible in Hebrew.  In English, it’s the familiar, “In the beginning, G-d created the heavens and the earth.”

When he did so, the audience applauded enthusiastically and the contestant smiled.  I smiled too, for two reasons.  First, I appreciated that reciting a verse of biblical Hebrew is a definite accomplishment for any non-native Hebrew speaker, all the more so under the glare of national TV!  But second, I realized that he had made a small, but philosophically important grammatical mistake by omitting one of the sentence’s two words “et.”

The Hebrew word et – spelled alephtav -- has no substantive meaning; it’s simply a marker designating the accusative case. The word following it is the definite direct object of the sentence (i.e., the heavens and the earth are what G-d created). 

But rabbis (for example, Rabbi DovBer, the 18th century Maggid of Mezritch) saw another meaning for the et in the first verse of Torah.  They suggested that since aleph and tav are the first and last letters of the (Hebrew) alphabet, et can be understood to mean “the letters of the alphabet,” “words,” or “language.”

Such a reading renders the first verse: “In the beginning (or, ‘when He began’), G-d created letters/the alphabet/words, the heavens, and the earth.”  That is, G-d first created speech, then used it to create everything else.  This reading is also consistent with subsequent verses, in which G-d created everything by saying “Let …” 

This week we begin our Torah reading cycle anew.  Remembering that G-d fashioned our entire world with words should remind us that our words, too, have the power to create and to destroy.  

How can we take better care to do the former rather than the latter?  One easily accessible resource is Rabbi Joseph Telushkin’s insightful paperback, Words That Hurt, Words That Heal: How to Choose Words Wisely and Well.  (Available for under $10 in both physical or downloadable versions).  I recommend reading it regularly … and distributing copies to family and friends as a “gift that keeps on giving.”  

Careful speech isn’t just a matter of “et-iquette.”  It’s an essential way to fulfill the mitzvah of emulating the Divine.

Shabbat shalom!

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A bird that you set free may be caught again, but a word that escapes your lips will not return.
Jewish Proverb