Give Me a Sign! Parashat Bo 4 Shevat 5778

Parashat Bo, 5778

Our firstborn daughter Tiferet Tehilla has been speaking and saying words for a long time. She could even say her sister's name - Maayan(i) ever since she was born four months ago. But for all of her talent for speech, she has not been able to say her own name! To be fair, her name, "Tiferet" תפארת (meaning splendor) is not so easy to say.  Her concerned father (me) went to work teaching her her name syllable by syllable (Tee--Fe--Rhet). She would repeat after me one syllable at at time, always giving herself applause after she finished. But she wasn't yet able to put it all together into one word, one name: Tiferet

Perhaps out of frustration or perhaps out of incredible brilliance, she decided to give herself a nickname. What did she call herself? אֶת [ET]. Not the the extra-terrestrial E.T. but rather the last sound in her name. We found it interesting that she called herself the Hebrew word אֶת [Et], since the word has no direct translation into English! I was also perplexed about this since even as we worked on the three syllables of her name, she had successfully repeated the last syllable of her name as Rhet with a perfect Israeli guttural rrrr....but in the end she decided to simply call herself אֶת [Et].

In Hebrew, the word אֶת essentially connects the action of the subject to the direct object that is acted upon in a sentence. For example, in English we would say: "John picked up the brick." In Hebrew the word  אֶת would precede the direct object, that is, the brick. This, would then, render: John picked up (אֶת) the brick," indicating that John is the subject and the brick is the direct object that John is lifting. David Ben-Gurion, Israel's first Prime Minister, saw this word  אֶת as superfluous, so much so that he was known to dispense of the word at will. Of course, this piece is certainly not meant to be a Hebrew lesson, but rather an Inspirational Torah teaching about how we create meaning in our lives through our speech, actions and intention; so why do I find this word so fascinating and why is it so significant that my daughter called herself by this name?

Remarkably, the word אֶת is constructed of only two letters: the first and the last letter of the Hebrew alphabet! I take this as a sign, as something meaningful, when a word is made up of the first and last letters of the alphabet. How can this be interpreted? A word made up of the first and last letters of the alphabet must somehow signify the idea or concept of being "all encompassing, whole or complete." (Wow! Good job Tiferet!)

And speaking of signs...this week's Parasha [weekly Torah portion], Bo, speaks of SIGNS. In the reading, the Torah uses the word אֹת [Ot] to describe the ten plagues. The Hebrew word אֹת (Ot) in the Torah refers to a meaningful "sign" from God. It also begins with the first and ends with the last letter of the Hebrew alphabet!

We read at the very beginning of this week's Torah portion: 

Exodus 10
1 And the LORD said to Moses: "Go to Pharaoh; for I have hardened his heart, and the heart of his servants, that I might show these My signs [the ten plagues] in the midst of them;  

א וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוָה אֶל-מֹשֶׁה, בֹּא אֶל-פַּרְעֹה:  כִּי-אֲנִי הִכְבַּדְתִּי אֶת-לִבּוֹ, וְאֶת-לֵב עֲבָדָיו, לְמַעַן שִׁתִי אֹתֹתַי אֵלֶּה, בְּקִרְבּוֹ.

The word אֹת [Ot] here is written in the plural אֹתֹת [signs], referring to the ten plagues. There is also a suffix letter י [yod] at the end of the word, indicating possession [My (God's) signs] .

The Torah actually describes the ten plagues as "signs" from God. If they are signs, what do they signify? The Torah gives the answer in the next verse.

2. So that you may tell into the ears of your son, and your son's son, what I have wrought upon Egypt, and My signs which I have done among them; [so] that you may know that I am the LORD.

ב וּלְמַעַן תְּסַפֵּר בְּאָזְנֵי בִנְךָ וּבֶן-בִּנְךָ, אֵת אֲשֶׁר הִתְעַלַּלְתִּי בְּמִצְרַיִם, וְאֶת-אֹתֹתַי, אֲשֶׁר-שַׂמְתִּי בָם; וִידַעְתֶּם, כִּי-אֲנִי יְהוָה

According to the verse, the signs that God performs are intended to inform us that God is [the true] God or, more specifically, that these signs come from God; the divine source. Notice that the words "My signs" in the Hebrew is "אֶת אֹתֹתַי"; [Et Ototai]; the two words that we have been speaking about amazingly appear together in this verse. 

Perhaps to our modern sensibility it is hard to see these signs as anything but cruel, as they affected many "innocent" Egyptians... but to our ancestors, who were slaves, who were enslaved mentally, psychologically and spiritually, for whom the concept of the "Lord" referred to Pharaoh or to a human taskmaster who was lording over them, the signs and wonders that God wrought on Egypt were meaningful. The signs came to show the Children of Israel that there is a force greater than the dominion of human rulers. 

We, in our own lives, are endlessly searching for meaning, searching for an order, or a sense that some greater, benevolent force is having a positive influence on our lives and in our world. According to philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce, we are driven by a desire to make meanings. Distinctively, we make meanings through our creation and interpretation of "signs" which may take the form of words, images, sounds, odors, flavors, acts or objects; these have no intrinsic meaning and become signs only when we invest them with meaning. In a sense, that is what I did in making the name that my daughter gave herself a meaningful and significant sign.

We want to know that each one of us and the lives we lead are SIGNIFICANT.  Significance begins with the word "sign" and our feeling of significance serves as a sign that our lives and our being here in this world at this very time are meaningful. Some of us are looking for a sign that there is greater meaning to the everyday events  of our lives, that our lives have purpose; even divine purpose. We are looking for a sign that there is a divine presence with us and that our relationships and our work are deeply and truly meaningful and impactful; part of a greater destiny and legacy. 

The word אֹת [Ot] means "sign" and אֹתִי [Oti] means "my sign," but  incredibly that word אֹתִי also means "ME"! Perhaps than, one could say, "I am the sign for the significance of my being, of my "Me-ness or Godliness."  The Hebrew language is filled with signs meant to express the greater meaning of words, life, connection to God, others and self...that is why the letters of the Hebrew alphabet are called אֹתִיוֹת [Otiot] or letters, (literally-signs). The letters come together to express something of ultimate meaning. 

To conclude, I return to my daughter Tiferet, who has named herself אֶת [Et], perhaps as a sign אֹת [Ot] of her own self-awareness, as well as an expression of her sense of connection with others and, ultimately, with the Holy One Blessed be He! 

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Yonatan

I very much hope that these editions of Inspirational Torah will inspire you in your personal life and inspire you to share, ask questions and share stories. To email me directly please write to: 
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  1. Hello Rabbi Yonatan, Very inspiring and beautiful. Shalom from Be'er Sheva and Shavua Tov. Your friend, Mark


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