Parshat Bereshit: Standing Together
Rabbi Dr. Kenneth Brander is President and Rosh HaYeshiva of Ohr Torah Stone
Dedicated to the wellbeing of our soldiers and security forces; a refuah sh’leimah to those who have been injured; and for the return of those being held hostage in Gaza.
At this moment of crisis for Am Yisrael, we begin Sefer Bereshit anew. It’s hard to imagine: how can we face a Shabbat together, how will we kickstart this year’s cycle of reading through the Torah, when we are overcome with devastation, grief, and fear? With the unfolding events in Israel tearing more and more deeply into our hearts with each passing day, with what frame of mind can we open up the Torah once again?
An Aggada recorded in Tractate Chagiga in the Jerusalem Talmud [2:1] makes an unusual remark. Why does the Torah begin with the letter ‘bet’?; Ccertainly it should have opened with ‘aleph,’ the first letter of the alphabet!
The answer, claims the Yerushalmi, relates to other words beginning with the same letters: ‘aleph’ is the first letter of ‘arira’ (curse), while ‘bet’ is the first letter of ‘bracha’ (blessing). Hence, it was preferable to begin the Torah with ‘bet’, rather than with ‘aleph’.
As the Torah Temima [Bereshit 1:1(4)] notes, the Yerushalmi responds to an odd question with an even more unusual response. True, the Hebrew word for curse begins with aleph – but so do a wide array of words with more positive connotations, and the converse is true of the letter ‘bet’ as well!
The Torah Temima argues that the Aggada must have some further meaning beneath the surface regarding the symbolism of these letters. Along these lines, I heard from Rabbi Jacob J. Schacter that there is great significance to the Torah’s beginning with the letter ‘bet.’ ‘Bet’, being the second letter of the Hebrew alphabet, signifies togetherness. The world in which we live requires partnership – partnering with one another to improve the world, and partnering with the divine in that process. If the world were to be founded on ‘aleph,’ on individualism and solitude, it simply would not stand. Rather, it is through a commitment to solidarity and cooperation that we are charged to live in the world.
As I look around at the heroism and unity of the Jewish people demonstrated over these past few, painful days, I find myself overwhelmed with inspiration, even in the midst of all the grief and despair. Hundreds of thousands of reservists have mobilized, including many who rushed to the front lines from overseas, and thousands more have mobilized to support the families of the fighting and the fallen. Meals are being cooked, equipment collected and distributed, and donations made from Jewish communities worldwide. Dizengoff Square, which on Yom Kippur was the center of disunity, has become a collection depot for food and other needs for soldiers, jointly organized by both religious and secular. Divisions that just days ago ripped apart this nation have been put aside as we face these trying days together. Strangers are making their way to drop-off sites, military bases, Shiva houses, the homes of solo parents, and backyard weddings – everyone joined together by a shared sense of common purpose and identity.
Aleph, focusing only on oneself, is an assured path to ‘arur’, to curse and destruction. It is only through the Bet, through the solidarity that we have witnessed this week and which we will continue to witness in the hard days ahead, that we will succeed in breathing life into our pained and wounded nation. This unimaginably tragic moment is, despite the suffering, a testament to our shared solidarity and resolve, and a wake up call not to lose sight of what holds us together.