The first graders end the first week of school with a circle of the floor. I ask them to think of something they are thankful for, before leaving for Shabbat. Some are thankful or P.S., some for math. Some are thankful for “surviving” and even enjoying this first week of schooling. I can hardly begin to tell them all the things on my mind, and stay with being their teacher, which includes jumping rope with them at recess. JUst when I think we’re done, one who has been thinking for a few moments says in a triumphant voice, Hebrew! That’s it, I can go home now.
Alef is all we do. We’re in Kita Alef (1st grade), and it’s our first letter. We write it, read it, cut it, paste it, draw it, paint it, sing it, march it, whisper it, almost yell it. By the end of the week, surely we know it. But Alef must be the most mysterious of the Hebrew letters. Try to pronounce it without vowels. It has no sound. The first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, the letters that according to our tradition G-d created the world with, is silent. Maybe even the alphabet is humbled. After all, how much can you say with words.
Alef is also the first letter in the name of this month -Elul. Until the Babylonian exile the Hebrew months were counted numerically, first second etc. The months’ names came later, accordingly, Elul is from the Akkadian word for “harvest”. But tradition has it that it’s an acronym for “ani ledodi vedodi li”, meaning – I am to my beloved and my beloved is to me, symbolic of the upcoming High Holy Days, and yearning for tshuva, “return”, finding an “answer”, coming home.
This Torah portion is loaded with do’s and don’ts. One of them is “hashavat aveida“, returning a lost object, and there are many beautiful commentaries and stories associated with it. Rav Hirsch adds and says that this mitzvah is “naturally” connected to the previous one, which is attending to the burial of the dead, for “a corpse is nothing but an aveida (lost property), the person’s fallen-off physical frame”.
The sun is setting and my thoughts are still incomplete, but I’m wondering if and what is the connection between this “hashava” – returning of lost objects and “tshuva“, our return to the right place for us. Maybe G-d models this “hashavat aveida” by bringing us back when we lose our right path for a new beginning.
I like thinking about aleph at the beginning of a school year and all the beginnings it symbolizes. Todah and good luck in your teaching year.
thank you! shana tova to you and yours!