Hey! Is that the Letter “Hei?” by Rabbi Duvie Nachbar


Every year, Parashat BeReishit is read immediately on the heels of the Tishrei holidays and introduces a new cycle of weekly Torah readings. The juxtaposition is inescapable, as the Jewish people annually conclude the previous year’s cycle of Torah readings with Parashat VeZot HaBerachah, which is read on Simchat Torah. Parashat BeReishit is always read on the first Shabbat following Simchat Torah. A comment of Chazal on a Pasuk in this week’s Parashah, though, deepens the connection between our experience of the months of Elul and Tishrei and the reading of Parashat BeReishit which immediately follows.

The Pasuk reads, “These are the generations of the heaven and of the earth when they were created (BeHibar’am), on the day that the Hashem made earth and heaven” (BeReishit 2:4). Chazal splice the word “Asot,” which means “used,” to describe the creation of heaven and earth, and render the word “BeHibar’am” as “BeHeibar’am” (Menachot 29b, BeReishit Rabbah 2:10). In Chazal’s novel reading of the Pasuk, Hashem utilizes the Hebrew letter “Hei” as His tool of creation in fashioning the heaven and the earth.

According to one perspective cited in the Midrash, the significance of the letter “Hei” and its usage as a creative tool lies in its unique pronunciation. As opposed to all other letters in the Hebrew alphabet, the letter “Hei” is the sole letter that one can enunciate without moving one’s tongue or lips. The point Chazal seek to underscore in this interpretation is Hashem’s effortlessness in creating the heaven and the earth. According to a second perspective (Menachot 29b, BeReishit Rabbah 2:10, Rashi BeReishit 2:4), though, the significance of the letter “Hei” lies in its physical makeup and the two openings toward the bottom and upper left corner of the letter’s structure. The wide opening toward the bottom of the letter represents the potential downward spiritual mobility granted to every individual by dint of his freedom of choice (Menachot 29b) and a person’s permanent demise in the world to come, which results from one’s poor choices in life (Rashi BeReishit 2:4). The additional, smaller opening toward the roof of the letter, though, represents the opportunity for Teshuvah and Hashem’s assistance in that process. Teshuvah’s centrality and vital inclusion in the human religious experience is highlighted in this second interpretation.

Chazal’s claim elsewhere that Teshuvah represents one of seven items or concepts that predate the creation of the world (Nedarim 39b) is consistent with and presupposed by this notion that the letter “Hei” and its embodiment of the message of Teshuvah was a creative force in the heaven and the earth’s formation. In fact, we allude to Teshuvah’s primordial existence in one of the Piyutim recited by Ashkenazic Jews during Mussaf on Rosh HaShanah. However, the relevance and value of Teshuvah prior to man’s creation or the phenomenon of sin is troublesome. On the surface, one might explain Teshuvah’s precedence in the spirit of Hashem introducing the cure even prior to the illness it seeks to remedy. At the same time, Chazal might be teaching us a deeper lesson about Teshuvah and creation.

If Teshuvah serves as a creative tool in Hashem’s “hands,” it must possess a creative capacity. Rav Soloveitchik writes regarding Teshuvah that “repentance, according to the Halachic view, is an act of creation – self creation. The severing of one’s psychic identity with one’s previous ‘I,’ and the creation of a new ‘I,’ possessor of a new consciousness, a new heart and spirit, different desires, longings, goals” (Halakhic Man, pg. 110). Teshuvah does not merely seek to rectify the past, but rather, it seeks to create a future “in all its beauty and majesty” (ad. loc pg. 114). It is precisely this creative capacity of Teshuvah which is valuable independent of man’s existence, his errors of judgment, and mistaken behavior. Moreover, it is precisely this creative capacity of Teshuvah and its ability to bring about a new reality which enabled it to serve as the creative tool in Hashem’s formation of the new reality of heaven and earth during creation.

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