Category Archives: Midrash

The Letter of Creation

The following is an excerpt from Garments of Light, Volume Two. Get the book here


Vayigash elav Yehudah, “And Judah approached him…” The Zohar begins its commentary on this week’s parasha by briefly citing a well-known Midrash about how the letters of the Hebrew alphabet approached God seeking to be the letter through which God creates the universe. The account is presented in full in an ancient text called Otiot d’Rabbi Akiva, and is also referenced to in multiple places, including the first chapters of Beresheet Rabbah and Yalkut Shimoni. The Zohar itself provides a detailed account in its first pages (I, 2b-3b):

…when the Holy One, blessed be He, desired to create the world, the letters of the alphabet appeared before Him (in reverse order). First came Tav and said: “Master of the Universe, may it be Your will that You create the universe with me, for I am Your seal of Truth [emet], and You are called Truth. It would therefore be fitting for the King to start His Creation with the letter of Truth.”

The Holy One, blessed be He, replied: “You are right and worthy, but I shall not create the universe with you, for you will be the mark upon the foreheads of the faithful, who fulfil the Torah from Aleph to Tav. With your mark, they shall die, for you are the seal of death [mavet].”

Being the last letter of the alphabet, Tav is the “seal” of God, and God’s seal is Truth. Tav argued it should be the letter of Creation—and the first letter of the Torah—because it represents Truth. God responded that Tav also represents death. The Talmud (Shabbat 55a) states that when a person is “marked” for death, the mark is a letter Tav on their forehead. And so, the universe cannot be created with a Tav. Next came the letter Shin: Continue reading

Pinchas is Eliyahu—and So Much More

‘Elijah Taken Up to Heaven’

The Midrash famously comments on the eponymous subject of this week’s parasha that “Pinchas is Eliyahu” (Yalkut Shimoni I, 771). This statement is echoed throughout rabbinic texts and, with minor exceptions, all agree that Pinchas and Eliyahu were one and the same person. There are many reasons for this. With Pinchas, we read that God gave him a blessing of peace and “eternal priesthood”, suggesting that Pinchas would forever be a kohen. We go on to read how Pinchas was the kohen gadol for centuries, throughout the period of Judges, and the Tanakh never records his death. Meanwhile, Eliyahu appears in the Tanakh quite suddenly without any background information, genealogy, or patronymic. He goes on to avoid death and be taken up to Heaven in a fiery chariot.

Most tellingly, we find a unique Scriptural statement used in relation to these two figures, and no one else. Pinchas is described as having stood up zealously for God (בקנאו את קנאתי, Numbers 25:11), and Eliyahu uses the same words when speaking to God, saying he was zealous for God (קנא קנאתי, I Kings 19:10). The Sages conclude that they must be one and the same zealot! If that’s the case, why and how did Pinchas become Eliyahu? Continue reading

Who Entered the Holy Land?

In this week’s parasha, Shlach, we read about the infamous incident of the Spies and the resulting decree that Israel would have to wander in the Wilderness for forty years:

In this desert, your corpses shall fall; your entire number, all those from the age of twenty and up, who were counted, because you complained against Me. You shall [not] come into the Land concerning which I raised My hand that you would settle in it, except Caleb the son of Yefuneh and Joshua the son of Nun… Your children shall wander in the desert for forty years and bear your defection until the last of your corpses has fallen in the desert. According to the number of days which you toured the Land forty days, a day for each year, you will bear your iniquities for forty years; thus you will come to know My alienation. (Numbers 14:29-34)

The plain reading suggests that of all the adults—those over the age of twenty—only Caleb and Joshua merited to enter the Holy Land. Yet, we see from other verses and sources that a number of additional people merited this as well. Who actually entered the Holy Land after the forty years in the Wilderness? Continue reading