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Alphabet Soup for the Soul, Part 5


WEEK 5:

ה/Hei is the unseen wind, sensed in spaces where faces meet, minds wonder,

lips quiver with curiosity, and breath whispers, ‘come closer.’

WORD: ה/Hei is CURIOUS, learning for the sake of learning / Hitlamdut vTorah lishmaH.

WORD-PLAY: This letter is many words in one. It is used as a prefix and a suffix in several, seemingly contradictory ways. When affixed to the front end of a noun, typically, we see the ה/Hei function as the definite article. It turns ‘a house,’ into ‘the house’ or ‘name’ into ‘the name, ha’shem, השם.’ And it bears the honor of appearing twice in the four-letters of ‘the [unspoken] name’ of God.

Curiously enough, the same letter at the beginning of a word can also turn a statement into a question, as an ‘interrogative ה/Hei. In other words, two sentences written (and pronounced) exactly the same way in Hebrew could be read as “The house is white,” or “Is the house white?” depending on the inflection. This is amazing to me. It opens nearly every verse of the Torah to an even broader range of interpretation. Nothing then is definitely definite. Everything is open to inquiry. Indeed, the language of Torah seems to invite the question: Does it say, “These are the words…or “Are these the words…?” The answer is, “Yes! Both.”

And when we find this open, spacious letter that makes only the sound of a breath, at the end of a word as a suffix, there is likewise lots of room, or play, for play. Tagged onto a word like ‘house/home,’ בית-ה, the meaning becomes either ‘towards home,’ or ‘her home.’ In other words, as a suffix this letter either means, ‘I the direction of…’ or functions as the feminine singular possessive. This too can make for some wonderful word play.

These four layers of potential meaning embedded in a single letter[1] combine to highlight two related core values of a culture shaped by the Hebrew alphabet and language, namely importance of curiosity and the value of learning for its own sake [תורה לשמה /Torah Lishmah]. As a child I was invited to question everything. I was told that each day after school, Albert Einstein’s mother asked him not what he learned that day, but what questions he asked in class. The question, I learned, is always more important than the answer. And, it’s not about how much you learn, but how often. Learning simply for the sake of learning, for HER sake alone, is its own reward, and according to some, an act whose reward meets or exceeds all other good deeds.

PRACTICE: Be curious! Turn your definite articles into curious queries. Bend your exclamation points into question marks. Attend a class, and ask questions. Study something unexpected just because you can.

BLESSING: May each breath remind us to practice curiosity, especially where we encounter airs of certainty and animosity. And may our curiosity and wondering lead to wonder, and wonder lead to wonderful, joyful – as we journey through time-space from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur to Sukkot and Simchat Torah, and celebrate the joy of learning, again and again.

[1] Which hint at the four layers of interpretation of Torah known by the acronym PaRDeS, and the four worlds described in kabbalah.

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