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:
The Shin arose before Him and said: “Master of the Universe, may it be Your will to create the universe with me, for with me begins Your name Shaddai, and it would be appropriate to begin Creation with a holy name.”
God replied: “You are right and worthy and true. However, you are also the beginning of falsehood [sheker], therefore I will not create the universe with you…”
Of the many names of God, Shaddai is one that is especially associated with Creation. The Talmud (Chagigah 12a) states that Shaddai refers to the very origins of the universe, which began with a rapid expansion until God said dai, “stop!” (see ‘Torah on the Big Bang and the Age of the Universe’.) Because of this connection, the letter Shin argued it should be the start of Creation. Since it also stands for falsehood, God rejected its petition, along with the letters Reish and Kuf that spell “falsehood” (שקר). Then came Tzadi and said:
“Master of the Universe, may it be Your will to create the universe with me, for I am the seal of the righteous [tzadikim], and you are called ‘Righteous’ [Tzadik]…”
God replied: “Tzadi—you are Tzadi, and you are a tzadik! However, you need to remain concealed…”
God told Tzadi that had the universe been imbued with righteousness, there would be little purpose to it. In other words, if everyone was automatically righteous, there would be no struggle between good and evil, and no need for reward or punishment. There would be nothing to work on, no growth and no epiphany, no merits to attain. What would be the point?
This was precisely the problem in the Garden of Eden, where Adam and Eve were placed in a perfect world with no evil. Without evil, it is difficult to appreciate the good. Without the experience of pain, pleasure can be quite dull. Adam and Eve soon tired of the monotony. They chose to consume of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, thus bringing evil into the world. Now there was purpose! The Zohar encodes this in the terse discussion on the letter Tzadi, through an exposition of how a Tzadi is a fusion of the letters Nun and Yud—and whether they are facing towards or away from each other. That discussion leads directly to the next letter, Pei:
“Master of the Universe, may it be Your will to create the universe with me, for I am the Redemption [pedut] that you are destined to bring to the world…”
God replied: “You are right, but with you also lies sin [pesha], like a coiled snake that strikes…”
Many secrets are embedded in the Zohar’s words here. The Zohar compares the coiled shape of the letter Pei to a snake that causes sin. This, of course, alludes back to the Garden of Eden and the consumption of the Forbidden Fruit. Adam and Eve had brought evil into the world, but also purpose. They brought the need for rectification; for learning, growing, and for progress—both on an individual and on a global scale. The ultimate endpoint is the Redemption, when the world is restored to perfection. (For more on the connection between the Serpent and the Redemption, see below under Vayechi, ‘Mashiach and the Mysterious 13th Zodiac Sign’.)
For the same reason that God did not accept Pei, He also dispensed with ‘Ayin, which also stands for another form of sin, ‘avon. (The difference is that pesha is a sin done for no other reason but out of spite or rebellion, whereas ‘avon is a sin which brings some material benefit to the sinner and is not meant to be deliberately rebellious.) Then came Samekh and Nun:
“Master of the Universe, may it be Your will to create the universe with me, for I support [somekh] the fallen…”
God replied: “This is why you must stay in your place and not move! For if you move, what shall happen to all the fallen that are supported by you?”
Immediately, the letter Samekh left from before Him.
The letter Nun arose and said: “Master of the Universe, may it be Your will to create the universe with me, for with me is written ‘terrific in praise’ [nora tehilot]…
God said: “Nun, go back to your place, for it is because of you that Samekh went back to its place…”
While Nun stands for the praises that are bestowed upon God, it also stands for the noflim, the fallen that are supported by Samekh. Those two letters need to stay where they are.
Then came Mem, Lamed, and Kaf. They argued that they make up the letters of melekh, “king”, so it is fitting that the universe be created with them. God replied that the universe has a King! Nonetheless, Kaf persisted with another argument, saying that it stands for kavod, the glory of God. It is also the kise, God’s Throne. Nonetheless, God said that Kaf is also klayah, “destruction”, so He refused to create with Kaf.
Yud argued it should be the one since it is the first letter of God’s Name. God replied that Yud should be happy that it already holds such an important position, and it could not be removed from God’s Name anyway. Tet and Chet appeared next. Tet argued that it should be used since it represents tov, “good”. God’s reply to Tet was similar to His reply to Tzadi: it should remain concealed. Moreover, because Tet is next to Chet, together they make the word chet, “sin”, so they cannot be used. Zayin argued its case on the fact that it represents zachor, “Remember the Sabbath day…” (Exodus 20:8) God replied that zayin also means “weapon”. The letters Vav and Hei got the same answer as Yud, since they make up the rest of God’s Ineffable Name.
Then arose Dalet and Gimel and said the same thing. God said: “It is good for you two to stay one with the other. That way poor people will not perish from the world, and there will always be someone to help them—for Dalet represents the poor, and Gimel those who act kindly with them. Therefore, you two should stay together and sustain one another.”
The Zohar alludes to the Talmud (Shabbat 104a) which says that Gimel and Dalet stand for gemol dalim, “give to the poor” or do acts of kindness (gemilut chassadim) for those in need. Gimel and Dalet, therefore, already fulfil a very important purpose, and need to stay where they are. Then came Bet:
“Master of the Universe, may it be Your will to create the universe with me, because through me you are blessed [berakhah] Above and below.”
The Holy One, blessed be He, replied: “Of course, it is with you that I shall create the universe, and you shall stand at the beginning of the universe’s creation.”
Because it stands for “blessing”, God created the universe with Bet, and this is why the Torah begins with a letter Bet. What about Aleph?
The letter Aleph stood but did not approach. The Holy One, blessed be He, said to it: “Aleph, Aleph, why did you not come before Me like all the other letters?”
It replied: “Master of the Universe, it is because I saw that all the other letters left Your presence without any benefit, so what could I do? Besides, you have already given the greatest gift to the letter Bet, and it is not fitting for the King to take back a reward he had given to one servant and give it to another servant!”
God said: “Aleph, Aleph, even though I will create the universe with the letter Bet, you shall be the head of all the letters, for you represent My oneness…”
Aleph became the first letter of the alphabet, as well as the first letter of the Ten Commandments.
Dual Nature of Man
Going back to the Zohar on this week’s parasha, it states that Bet is the letter of Creation, and also represents the creation of man. The deeper meaning here is that man has been imbued with a dual nature. This is reflected in the symmetry of the body—with pairs of eyes, ears, nostrils, arms, legs, etc.—as well as in the male-female pair which makes up one complete “person”. It is also found in the two inner dispositions of a person, represented by Judah and Joseph in this week’s parasha.
These two personalities were best described and defined by Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik in his Lonely Man of Faith. Rabbi Soloveitchik bases his work on the seeming repetition of the creation of man in Genesis. In Chapter 1, we read how
God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them. And God blessed them; and God said to them: “Be fruitful and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it…” (Genesis 1:27-28)
Then, in Chapter 2, we read:
Then God formed man out of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul… And God said: “It is not good that man should be alone; I will make a helper opposite him.” (Genesis 2:7,18)
Rabbi Soloveitchik says how this apparent repetition actually represents two distinct types of people, or two distinct aspects that each person carries within. “Adam the first” is made perfect in God’s image, and is given a blessing to be successful and rule the world. “Adam the second” does not have this blessing, and is lonely in the Garden, though he has a far more direct connection to his Creator. Rabbi Soloveitchik writes that “Adam the first exists in society, in community with others. He is a social being, gregarious, communicative, emphasizing the artistic aspect in life” and that “Adam the first is never alone… He emerged into the world together with Eve.” (pg. 25) Meanwhile, “Adam the second was formed from the dust of the ground” and “has never forgotten that he is just a handful of dust.” Adam the first is successful, ambitious, “blessed with the gift of rhetoric”, but also “fenced-in, egocentric, and ego-oriented”. Adam the second is humble and modest, searching for truth and meaning, a “lonely man of faith”.
Though Rabbi Soloveitchik does not say it, Adam the first and Adam the second are very much reflective of Joseph and Judah, respectively. Joseph is the one the Torah describes as ish matzliach, “a successful man”, who rises to the top wherever he goes—whether in servitude, in prison, or in the royal palace. He is beautiful, the most charming of men. He is wealthy, powerful, in control. Judah, on the other hand, willingly separated from his brothers to live alone. He is deep in introspection and repentance. He admits his flaws and wishes to grow morally. Whereas Joseph provides for his family materially, Judah takes care of them spiritually. Joseph and Judah are Adam the first and Adam the second! And these two qualities are found within each and every Jew. Sometimes we are like Joseph, and sometimes we are like Judah. The key is to combine the best of both personas, and harmonize them within us, as it says in the Haftarah for this week’s parasha (Ezekiel 37:16-17):
And you, son of man, take for yourself one stick and write upon it, “For Judah and for the children of Israel his companions”; and take one stick and write upon it, “For Joseph, the stick of Ephraim and all the house of Israel, his companions.” And bring them close, one to the other into one stick, and they shall be one in your hand.