The Torah portion of this week, called “Toldot” (Generations) contains these words of Yitschaq (Isaac) towards his son, Esau in Gen 27:7: “Bring me wild game and make me a tasty dish, so that I may eat and bless you in the presence of Yahweh before my death.” The last part of the sentence “in the presence of Yahweh, before my death” is written in a peculiar way in Hebrew: “lifneh Yahweh, lifneh my death” – literally: “before the face of Yahweh, before the face of (or: before facing) my death”. Of the 60 odd occurrences of the word “lifneh” in the book of Genesis, this verse is one of only a handful in which this particular word appears twice in the same verse. The word itself consists of two parts – “moving towards” and “face”. In Hebrew understanding, to be in the presense of someone or “before” someone, is the same as moving towards his or her face. But towards the end of our lives, each one of us will come to know what it means to move closer towards the face of death. The first “lifneh” or “before” is a movement in space – it is about the PLACE where many of us would like to be – in the presence of Yahweh, right there in front of Him, in his magnificent presence. But the second “lifneh” or “before” is more like a movement in TIME – it is about moving closer, as the days and the months and the years go by, to the time of one’s death. Both “lifneh’s” are crucial during our pilgrimage here on earth. Both “lifneh’s” are inevitable – even if one chooses not to follow Yahweh and not to seek his face. Every living person will eventually be faced with the question: Where do I stand with regards to the face of Yahweh? And what is more, the first “lifneh” is what prepares us and gives meaning to the second “lifneh”. It helps us coping with the fear of the unknown. It brings meaning to even the most insignificant tasks of our daily lives. It provides substance to the void that lies beyond death – coupled with hope and expectation that goes much further than anything this life can offer. Spending time “lifneh” or “before” the Creator of heaven and earth. There is no better way to approach death. There is no better way to cope with life.
Sometimes one will hear believers complaining about the use of words in the Hebrew language when they were hoping to hear a message in their own language that was easy to understand. I can understand their frustration. But let us not be too quick with objections like “I am not a Jew” or “I don’t speak Hebrew.” It is not about speaking Hebrew. It is not even about using Hebrew words and Hebrew expressions to make some kind of statement or to impress others. That, in itself, means absolutely nothing! But if a word in Hebrew can help us to discover the true meaning of Scriptures, and even more than that, the true meaning of life, we should not be too quick to become irritated by the use of Hebrew words. Is that even possible, some would ask. Can Hebrew words and letters help us discover the meaning of life? I believe they can. There is a hunger for meaning in our time. To me it feels as though this hunger has become more acute over the last couple of decades – it has become more like a famine, no longer just a hunger. Someone said we live in a time in which nothing is true and everything is permitted. Our bodies need food and water. But our souls need meaning in order to survive the times that we are experiencing, right now.
The majority of those who are daring enough to look at the Biblical Scriptures for meaning, will agree that we need to go back to the order and principles that were set forth “in the beginning” – “bereshit” – when the Almighty created everything and not only said “It was good!” after each day of creation, but also set the whole of creation on a course that was supposed to be meaningful and purposeful. So let us return to some Hebrew words and Hebrew letters, once more. As we know, the first word in Genesis is “Bereshit” which means “in the beginning”. The next two words are “barah” (he created) and “Elohim”. “In the beginning Elohim created …”. We also know that this is followed by “the heaven(s) and the earth”. But before “the heavens”, there is a little word in the text that is not supposed to be translated, and consists of the two letters “alef” and “tav” – the first and the last letters of the Hebrew alphabet. Because language is part and parcel of the Hebrew understanding of the entire known world, including the events of creation, some of the ancient rabbi’s have insisted that the “alef-tav” between “In the beginning Elohim created” and “the heavens and the earth”, was a symbolic way of saying that in the beginning Elohim created everything – from the alef to the tav. Nothing that came into being in the beginning stage of the world as we know it, happened just by chance or was caused by a force outside of Elohim. No, everything was created by the One who is called “Elohim” 32 times in Gen 1 and “Yahweh Elohim” – no less than 20 times in the next two chapters (Gen 2 and 3).
There is something that needs to be pointed out here. The “alef-tav” in the text of Gen 1:1 (and in other texts of the Tanak) is supposed to be left untranslated and unspoken – not only in Hebrew but also in the various translations of the Tanak available today. It is not a word in itself. But if we remove the space between the “alef-tav” and the next word, “hashamayim” (“the heavens”), the text actually reads: In the beginning Elohim created YOU … (“attah”, spelled “אַתָּה”, which is: “alef – tav – hey” ). What the text of Gen 1:1 is saying, on a basic level, is that in the beginning Elohim created the heaven and the earth – the place representative of Yahweh (who occupies the heavens) and the place representative of man, who was about to be created and was going to occupy the earth. But the first letter of “the heavens” in the Hebrew text is “ה” (“hey”) – the letter that is representative of Yahweh – not only because He dwells in the heavens but also because the letter “ה” appears twice in his Name. So here in Gen 1:1 we find the “alef-tav” – the two letters that represent the entire alphabet and therefore all the words and thoughts that will ever be uttered, all forms of understanding, all kinds of wisdom and everything that has meaning and purpose in life. And this “alef-tav” is right next to “the heavens” or the letter “ה”, representative of Yahweh, the One who is the Creator and the Source of life. In other words, the Creator is in this verse, the Source of life, the Originator of words and thoughts and wisdom and understanding. But all of this is meaningless and pointless without the “אַתָּה” or the “YOU”. And all of YOU will be without meaning and without purpose if you don’t connect with the One spoken of in Gen 1:1, the One who created both the heavens and the earth.
We have already established that in the Hebrew thinking words and letters and numbers are extremely significant. The book of Genesis, and for that matter, the entire Tanak or Old Testament, begins with the word “bereshit”, of which the first letter is “beyt”, the equivalent of our letter “b”. The numerical value of this letter is 2. Many commentators see this as one of the indications that in the beginning not one world, but two worlds were created: the world that we can see and another world that is hidden and invisible, but gives meaning to the world that we can see. Some of the rabbi’s call the hidden world, the “olam-ha’emet” or the “world of truth”. It is both a world that is yet to come and one that is already in our midst. There is no doubt in my mind that Y’shua the Messiah knew about this hidden world when He spoke about the kingdom of Yahweh that was yet to come, but also a reality that was right there, in the midst of those who looked at things with eyes of belief (Luk 10:11 “Know this, that the kingdom of Elohim has come near to you”; Luk 17:20 “The kingdom of Elohim does not come with visible signs”). The “second” world, the “world of truth” is invisible like Yahweh Elohim is invisible. It has been said that Yahweh is not invisible in the same way as the air is invisible. No, He is invisible as truth and love and compassion and meaning in life is invisible.
The difference between the two worlds, the visible and the invisible, is beautifully illustrated by the difference between concepts like “enjoyment” and “rejoicing”. These two words sound pretty much the same, but actually they are on different sides of the spectrum of life. Enjoyment is passive, self-centered, sensually orientated (focusing on things that are visual) and short-term. It happens when one enjoys a good dish, a good movie or a good adventure. When enjoyment becomes the primary goal in someone’s life, that person has become a slave of pleasure and fallen into the trap of hedonism. Hedonism is an obsessive pursuit of pleasure – the belief that to find pleasure (in the sense of the satisfaction of desires) is the highest good and proper aim of human life. Rejoicing, on the other hand, is ignited when someone performs an action, motivated by the values of the “invisible world” like love, tenderness, compassion, empathy and forgiveness. There is no need to pursue rejoicing, as an entity in itself. It appears almost unceremoniously and unannounced, as a most attractive by-product, like the fruit of a tree with its roots deep into the soil below, away from the public eye, but close to that place where it is nurtured and fed by an invisible source of life. True rejoicing follows automatically, not only when we focus unselfishly on the “attah”, the YOU and fellow human being that is walking alongside us on the roads of this life, but even more so, when we focus on the One who, in the very beginning (bereshit), created the heavens and the earth. To walk before (lifneh) Him, day in and day out, and to answer unselfishly with “hinneini” (Here I am) when He speaks, is putting us right where we need to be in order to find true meaning in life!