Bereshit: The Blessing of the Letter “Bet”
The Midrash raises the question of why the Torah begins with the letter “Bet” (“Bereshit Bara Elokim…”). Intuitively, we might have expected the Torah to begin with the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet – “Alef” – rather than the second letter, “Bet.” The Midrash answers that God chose to begin the Torah with the letter “Bet” because it is the first letter of the word “Baruch” (“blessed”), whereas the letter “Alef” is the first letter of the word “Arur” (“cursed”).
This comment of the Midrash requires explanation. Why does it matter that the letter “Alef” is the first letter of the word “Arur”? There are many, many words that begin with either “Alef” or “Bet,” some with positive associations, and others with negative associations. What is the Midrash coming to teach us by associating the “Bet” of “Bereshit” with “Baruch”?
One Rabbi answered that the Sages here actually refer to the deeper significance of the letters “Alef” and “Bet.” The letter “Alef’ is unique in that there is nothing before it; this letter begins the entire alphabet, without following or building upon an earlier letter. The letter “Bet,” by contrast, follows on the heels on the letter “Alef.” The Midrash indicates to us that when it comes to Torah, we must always begin with “Bet,” and not “Alef.” The text of the Torah could potentially be misunderstood if it is approached with the mindset of “Alef,” as though it is being studied for the first time and has never before been properly analyzed. When we sit down to learn Torah, we must come with the attitude of “Bet” – with the realization that there is an ancient tradition that dictates how it is to be studied and understood. Our Torah study is part of a process that began millennia ago. We do not start with “Alef,” ignoring everything that has been taught in years past, but rather with “Bet,” drawing from and building upon our ancient Torah tradition.
For this reason, we must be very careful in deciding from whom we learn Torah. Unfortunately, there are many teachers and lecturers who explain the text without regard for our tradition, who come with the mindset of “Alef,” rather than that of “Bet.” Our Sages warn that if we study Torah with “Alef,” without giving consideration to the traditional methods of understanding, then our study is “Arur,” Heaven forbid. Torah learning becomes a “Beracha” only if we approach it with the perspective of “Bet,” with the awareness of what has been said and taught in prior generations. When we approach Torah with this keen sense of Mesora (tradition), seeking to become part of a millennia-old scholarly tradition, then it becomes a true blessing for us, and not, Heaven forbid, a cause for “Arur.”