2. Bereshit II - ALEPH-BET

THE FIRST LETTER of the first word of the Torah preaches an eloquent sermon to all. I am referring to the Bet of Bereshit--"In the beginning." Many have been puzzled by the fact that the Torah begins with the second letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Wouldn't it have been more appropriate for the Aleph, the first letter, to introduce Holy Writ?

A popular explanation is that the Torah is so vast and profound that study it as much as we like, we cannot reach even the Aleph. To those who consider thelmselves accomplished scholars because they have mastered a certain number of chapters in the Bible or even a number of pages of the Talmud, the opening letter of the Torah declares, ""Man, you are simply deluding yourself. You haven't even reached the Aleph!" This thought is brought home to us in a remarkable statement by Ben Zoma. In answer to the question "Who is wise?" he replies, "He who learns from every man" (Ethics of the Fathers 4:1).

Chances are that if the same question were asked today the answer would be that a wise man is he who has college diplomas adorning the walls of his study, or one who has amassed a wealth of information on sundry subjects. Ben Zoma's defintion of wisdom is surprisingly different and unique. According to him it is not necessarily the college professor or one who has a Phi Beta Kappa key dangling from his vest wise, but one who is eager to learn.

Every volume of the Talmud begins with daph Bet, page two. Why not with daph Aleph, page one? To impress us with the fact that wisdom has no beginning, and therefore no ending.

In Jewish circles we refer to a scholar as a talmid chacham, "a student of the wise." The word chacham is frequently used in a derogatory sense. We say in Yiddish of a man who thinks that he knows it all, ehr iz a chacham fun mah mishtanah, meaning that he is an ignoramus and a fool.

The story is told of an itinerant stranger who came to town and called on a wealthy Maskil (intellectual), who was a physician. Trying to impress his host, the visitor related that he is a sick scholar who cannot obtain support from religious Jews on account of his advanced and liberal views on the Torah, and therefore must turn for help to Maskilim. Unimpressed, the doctor began to test his visitor's knowledge. "Tell me, are you familiar with the Guide to the Perplexed by Maimonides?" "Of course," was the swift reply. "I studied it before my Bar-mitzvah." Do you know anything about the talmudic commentary by the great Rabbi Tolstoi?" "What a question! I studied it at the Yeshiva, and parts of it I still know by heart." "My friend," remarked the host with a smile." My diagnosis is that you are not so much a sick scholar as a healthy am-haaretz (ignoramus)." The following item appeared in a magazine for eduacatrs. At the first meeting of the school year, the principal in introducing the teachers to the parents of the P.T.A. made a Freudian slip. "Ladies and gentlemen," he began. "These are the teachers whom your children will educate this year." The principal didn't mean it that way, but we are informed that Rabbi Judah, the Prince, said it in earnest. "Much have I learned from my masters, even more from my colleagues, umitalmidai yoter mikulam, and from my students more than from all" (Makot 10a; Taanic 7a).

The sages of the Midrash (Yalkut Gen. 2) offer yet another reason for ignoring the Aleph in favor of the Bet. Bet is lashon berachah, "the language of blessing," and Aleph is lashon arirah, "the language of curses." The Almighty refused to begin the Bible with a letter that speaks the language of curses and chose a letter that speaks the language of blessing to introduce His teachings to man.

Frankly, this rabbinic comment is difficult to comprehend. Surely the sages did not mean to imply that the Aleph is undesirable because the Hebrew word for curse, arur, begins with an Aleph, and the letter Bet is good because baruch, the word for blessing, begins with it. There are words like emet-- truth, emunah--faith, el--God, which begin with Aleph and speak the language of blessing; and there are literally dozens of words that begin with Bet and represent evil and wrong, such as beliyaal--scoundrel, boor--fool, baal--an abominable idol.

Recent events, however, have cast a new light on this comment. One for himself or one for another, that was the question which engaged the attention of the sages. Should an individual be permitted to put himself first and pursue his own interests, satisfactions, and ambitions, and consider the needs of others subordinate to his own, or should he be made to realize that one is none and that his well-being is to a large extent dependent on the destiny of his fellow-beings. Upon this depends the arur and baruch of society.

The Aleph being numerically one is symbolic of the philosophy of Me First, of self-centeredness and selfishness. That the root of arur--of all the curses that have afflicted humanity throughout the ages. Bet, on the other hand, is numerically two. The second letter of the Hebrew alphabet addresses itself to the individual and pleads that others besides him matter a great deal. This attitude calls for sympathy, cooperation and compassion. It is, therefore, the symbol of baruch, and, if followed diligently, ushers in an era of blessedness in personal as well as communal relationships.

A home in which members of the family behave like Alephs is doomed to misery and failure. Husband and wife must cultivate in themselves and in their children the spirit of Bet, of working and building together for the benefit of the entire family.

This truth is especially applicable to the international arena. The United Nations is not doing well because each nation is motivated by the Aleph philosophy. And the Torah admonishes that only the spirit of Bet can build the peace of the world, and the blessedness of man.

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