The Jewish tradition has a sweet story about the first two letters of the Hebrew alphabet. It relates that the Torah begins with the second letter, bet. The first word is bereisheet, “when beginning” (or “in the beginning”).

That doesn’t seem quite fair to the first letter, aleph. The story wonders why the Torah wouldn’t give the first letter the honor it deserves.

Fortunately, the issue is resolved when God pronounces the first word of the Ten Commandments, anochi. The word is a formal version of the word ani, “I.” It begins with aleph, and thus the letter is redeemed from ignominy.

But there’s a problem with the letter aleph. By itself, it has no sound. It needs a vowel in order to be heard. The best we can do is say an extended aaahhh. Like a breath. Like God’s breath when beginning to proclaim the most important set of rules ever given. Like a child’s intake of breath when she sees the Milky Way sprawled across the sky. Like the last breath of a dying person.

Take a breath. A deep breath. One that fills your lungs, expands your chest. Hold it, just for a moment. Then breathe it out, slowly, with your mouth wide open. Listen.

You have just made the sound that God made long ago, when the Children of Israel stood at the base of the mountain. The sound of a single breath that can contain everything ever said, ever thought, ever left unsaid. It is a sound full of potential, and possibilities, and promise. A sound without sound that echoes throughout eternity.

It is a sound that can carry us further than we ever dreamed, if we are willing. It is the sound that has carried me from being a writer to a teacher to a student to a rabbi. It is the sound I turn to when the silence is too loud. It is the sound that set me on this path and carries me forward. It is the Sound of the Divine.

The Hebrew letter aleph

Postscript: This weekend is the fourth anniversary on the Jewish calendar of my mother’s death. I wasn’t there to hear her last breath. I was at my home in Florida, in the middle of a celebratory weekend when I was installed as the Rabbi of my congregation. This week’s Torah portion, which includes the Ten Commandments, naturally brings up complicated emotions. I am grateful to my congregation for their support and love.