My father taught me a basic truth, and that is: "You have one shot to make a first impression."
I think this notion is simply elegant and elegantly simple. So let's explore for a moment some first impressions from this, the first book of Moses.
First, a story. When he was 5 years old, Rabbi Avraham Yeshaya Karelitz — who would ultimately be known to the word as the Chazon Ish, the pre-eminent talmudic sage of Israel in the first half of the 20th century — said with great pride and conviction to his father: Tate, ikh veis gantz Shas ("Daddy, I know the entire Talmud").
His father responded by pulling a tractate from the shelf, opening it and demanding proof.
"Father," said the boy, "show me one letter that I don't know."
May I be so bold as to say that I, too, know every letter of Torah? That said, I need to ask a question.
If it's true that first impressions really matter, why does the Torah begin with the second Hebrew letter, bet? I would have thought that the first letter, aleph, would have been in the pole position. After all, aleph is usually a shorthand letter representing alufo shel olam — "the One who created the world."
The First Words
Listen to this beautiful Chasidic interpretation.
After having just finished all of Torah, the cycle of which was completed on Simchat Torah, you might actually think that you have finished and learned it all. Now comes the letter bet. Because truth be told: You think that you've finished the story, but you really haven't even begun. As much as you have rolled the Torah's columns and turned her pages, her wisdom is inexhaustible, and her depths can never be fully plumbed.
That's why we engage with her again — to garner more insights and grasp more life wisdom. A humbling, yet empowering first impression, you would agree.
Were I to ask, what were the first words that God spoke? That is, what did God intend as a first impression? The answer is: Y'he or, "Let there be light."
How illuminating are the words of Rabbi Shimon in the rabbinic super-commentary known as midrash. He suggests that the word or ("light") is a one-word synopsis for each book of Torah. If you count, you will find that the word or is mentioned five times in the creation story — each one corresponding to one of the Five Mosaic Books.
Torah is the quintessential or; it is that which warms our souls, nurtures our spirits and enlightens our intellect.
The midrash continues. "And God said, 'Let there be light' — this refers to the appearance of Abraham." A Jew does not find enlightenment, meaning or purpose by being — to borrow the title of a book — the Jew in the lotus. For us, there is no either/or proposition. For a Jew, it is always an or proposition.
The only way to survive as a Jew is by being a member of the people of Abraham. The only way to thrive Jewishly is by advancing the sacred purpose of that people. A sobering, yet powerful first impression, you would agree.
Let's refine the question one final time.
Were you to ask: What was the first word that our tradition ascribes to God? The answer is: Y'he, "Let it be."
And what an exquisite challenge. For with every "let it be," there's a recognition that "things are not yet." A provocative, yet enabling first impression, you would agree.
So as we begin "in the beginning," let us be inspired by these first impressions. Let us reconnect, again and anew, with the sacred story of our people. Dad was right: You've got one shot to make a first impression, and for us Jews, this is a mandate and mitzvah every day.
Rabbi David Gutterman is the executive director of the Vaad: Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia.