Tuesday, December 2, 2008

the twenty-third letter

It's said that when Moses first came down from Mount Sinai carrying the ten commandments, he was so enraged to find the Israelites dancing around the golden calf that he smashed the stone tablets. The tablets' letters, freed from their prison of stone, flew back up to heaven.

After exacting a terrible retribution, god pardoned the Israelites and gave Moses a second set of tablets. But the substitutes, as substitutes often are, were imperfect. Written in Hebrew by the finger of god, they set out the law in an alphabet* of only twenty-two letters. The original tablets had used an alphabet of twenty-three letters, but one letter, the twenty-third letter, had disappeared.

And so, the story goes, because of the missing letter, our words are misspelled, our sentences are crooked, our grammar twists round on itself, our plans go wrong and our hopes go astray. No-one knows the sound or shape or even the name of the lost letter, but it's sometimes called simply ha-ot -- the letter. Some mystics have imagined ha-ot as looking a little like a shin, a Hebrew letter with the approximate shape of a W. The twenty-third letter, however, would be a more perfect shin, a shin with a fourth, upward-pointing prong.

For obvious reasons, this story appeals to me -- the missing piece, the missing peace. Faith is not one of my gifts, but I believe, as much as I believe anything, that one day, whether through our own efforts or god's grace, ha-ot will return to us. There will be new worlds built of new words; what is broken will be made whole and what is lost will be found.




*Technically, an abjad rather than an alphabet, because the twenty-two Hebrew letters represent consonants, not vowels. And, even more technically, an impure abjad, because Hebrew actually does have additional symbols called niqqud, which represent vowel sounds and, although not used in normal writing, are added in certain contexts such as dictionaries, poetry, or texts for children.

24 comments:

calliope said...

wow. this really touched me. My faith has been shaky for years, but I also find that I still relish in the idea that one day things will be whole again.

Amelie said...

You know fascinating things, Niobe. I would like to believe what you believe. Beautiful.

Wordgirl said...

Lost in your language again Niobe -- in a wonderful way.

I love this story -- and I warn you it may sink into my consciousness and some day, years from now, I may reference it and hopefully credit you -- lovely anonymous writer in the computer.

Monica H said...

Wow, this is so touching. I think we are all missing a bit of ha-ot.

I hope things are whole for you someday too.

wheelsonthebus said...

fascinating.

thailandchani said...

I like the way you have presented this. And it's further interesting how so many myths are formed to express a universal feeling.


~*

Julia said...

Yet another hole in my religious education.

What I think is fascinating is that this midrash (I assume it's a midrash, yes?), as midrashim often do, seems to conflict with the rigid doctrine. For how could the Torah be literal word if it's imperfect? Mind you, this suits me just fine-- I am not a fan of the literal word doctrine (and I don't have to be being Conservative and all). In fact, I think the most liberating thing I ever learned in terms of my Jewish studies was the five authors and an editor origin of the Tanah. It feels right to me to acknowledge that the word was filtered through imperfect channels-- human beings or whole groups of them with their own biases and agendas. Hm, I seem to have strayed a bit far from the topic. My point was going to be just that this story appeals to me.

Bon said...

i love this...the arcane info, and the hope behind it.

Karen said...

may it be so.

Mad said...

The logos: the power of the word. I find it fascinating how faith, all faiths, are so deeply linked to knowledge through language.

Sandy said...

Wow. I thank you not only for educating me, but for stirring a strange feeling in me...my own faith, which I haven't felt in a while.

Magpie said...

Interesting. Is there a connection to the fact that we have 23 pairs of chromosomes, but that the last pair is the sex-determinant? Somehow, 22 + 1 = 23 leads me to wonder if there's a relationship. But, did Moses know how many chromosomes we've got?

Elizabeth said...

I love that idea. It sort of makes me think of the origins of soul mates. I've also been a big believer in Platonic truths/forms, and that sort of goes along as well.

Smiling said...

Another piece of new and wonderful information. Thank you.

I too believe that there is better things ahead and words will be part of that.

Tash said...

I'm not sure which I find more fascinating: the story itself, or that fact that you sound downright optimistic.

Furrow said...

Okay -- now you're just making stuff up, but I like the sound of it. And you do sound very optimistic. Is it still scary?

niobe said...

Tash, Furrow: Careful readers will note that what I said was:
...I believe, as much as I believe anything, that one day ...

Make of that what you will.

Anonymous said...

After a quick googling, I found you can order your own ha-ot in 24 carat gold with diamonds. I believe the calves are still among us. It's a beautiful story though.
allypally

Lori said...

Oh, yes. I believe that as much as I believe anything too. Knowing me, take that as you will as well.

Blessings to you, Niobe. Truly.

excavator said...

That is so beautiful, Niobe. A blessing to start my day with.

diana said...

With no relation to the post:
http://www.dailymail.co.uk/health/article-1091542/

Cara said...

I was raised with God as the only option, but I have evolved in the last few years into a cognitive place where I a unversial pull feels really right.

I still refer to God, but in my mind the sub text reads, "God...the universe, a higher power, a strength from within". That's just too much to say out loud.

Thanks for your beautiful words.

B said...

May this be ongoingly true for you in ways that surprise you.

Barb

painted maypole said...

what a beautiful idea, and beautiful post