In the Beginning: An Exploration of the Hebrew Alphabet
by Joyce Steinfeld
Show Review by
Rabbi Joshua Fenton
Center for Jewish Life and Learning
APJCC, 14855 Oka Road, Los Gatos, ca 95032
We have a new Art Exhibit here at the JCC. Local artist Joyce Steinfeld is showing some of her work on the Hebrew alphabet, the Aleph Bet. Through painting and sculpture Steinfeld investigates the deeper meanings of the letters, the shapes of the characters, and in doing so helps us to look at something we have seen for years with new eyes. Why does an Aleph, the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, look the way it does? Notice the lines, the shape, what is the story behind the letter?
And Steinfeld is in good company in pondering the messages behind the letters themselves. It was none other than the famous Rabbi Akiva of the Talmud, who would derive meaning from the interpretation of a single letter. A collection of teachings, Otiot de Rabbi Akiba, deals exclusively with the study and interpretation of the letters themselves.
But let's be honest, so what? They're letters, characters interpreted as sounds (and in Hebrew's case numbers as well) that we use to convey ideas. It is the idea that matters. When I string the letters together they make words and as I string the words together I then share thoughts. Before they are put together in words and sentences they are simply empty vessels.
But Steinfeld and Rabbi Akiva, with 2000 years separating them, would tell us we are wrong. There is value to the container, they argue. There is something to be learned from the shape and form of each letter, and when we read in the Mishna that before God created the world God created the Aleph Bet, we are reminded of Steinfeld and Akiva and forced to take another look. Perhaps there is more there than we thought.
Maybe Steinfeld and Akiba are right. Maybe on the surface, they are only letters, but beneath the surface lies a world of meaning and depth that we would otherwise miss completely. In these days and months after the High Holidays, I would like to not only encourage everyone to visit the JCC and check out the fabulous new art show, but also take the message to heart.
Not far below the surface of the world we see and hear, is a deeper world of profound meaning. Perhaps these two teachers, separated by millennia, are both reminding us to take a closer look at our lives and the things we take for granted; asking us to spend another moment looking deeper in the search for a new perspective.