HOW GREAT ARE YOU WORKS, GOD!
One of my favorite Jewish music groups is an ensemble made up of cantors and rabbis whose name is Beged Kefet. Beged Kefet came together when these clergy were students studying Hebrew grammar. The phrase Beged Kefet is actually an acronym of the Hebrew letters Bet, Gimel, Daled, Kaf, Feh and Taf — this acronym is itself a mnemonic reminding us which Hebrew letters change from soft to hard when you add the little dot inside known as a dagesh. Those of you who read Hebrew know that vet with a dot inside, the dagesh, is pronounced bet, chaf with a dagesh is kaf and feh with a dagesh is peh. For those of you who prefer Ashkenazic Hebrew pronunciation, saf with a dot is taf, and once upon a time gimel and daled with and without dagesh were also pronounced differently.
The musical group Beged Kefet has a very clever song called One Little Dot. It describes what the dagesh does to the beged kefet letters — for example it makes vet much better — get it, vet turns better by becoming a bet. In the very end, though, the song takes a broader more significant twist — these guys are rabbis and cantors after all — making the claim that one little dot can make all the difference just like one person or one act can. Another way to look at it, is that even that little dot that most of us ignore when reading Hebrew has worlds of significance within it.
This same point is made in multiple places in this week’s parsha. For me, one of the most important is during the exchange with Moses and God on Mt. Sinai when God reveal’s God’s name to Moses after Moses repeatedly asks God to do so. There is a clue hidden in the dots that tells us that God actually revealed God’s supernal name to Moses for the first time during this exchange. I’ll try to explain this in words, though truthfully it’s the kind of thing that’s easier to show. Basically, there is a phrase in the Torah that repeats several times: vayikra b’shem Adonai, which means “and he called out in the name of God.” The musical markings of the trope symbols (te’amim) indicate in these cases to pause after the word “vayikra.” After a pause, the first letter of the next word, the vet, automatically takes the dot known as a dagesh, which makes it “vayikra — pause — B’shem Adonai.” But in this week’s parsha it is different. The musical markings indicate NOT to pause after the word Vayikra, and therefore according to the rules of Hebrew morphology the next letter “vet” does not get a dot and remains “vet.” So instead of being “Vayikra…. B’shem Adonai,” it is “Vayikra V’shem, Adonai,” which means Moses called out the name “God” “Adonai,” the secret all-powerful name that we have lost knowledge of since we no longer have a High Priest.
The dagesh, the little dot is therefore revealing perhaps the single most important theological moment in the entire Torah, when Moses learns the true name of God. The Talmud recounts specifically that during this mystical moment, God revealed God’s true essence to Moses by wrapping Godself in a tallit and showing Moses how to recite the Shlosh Esrei Midot, God’s thirteen Divine attributes. Whenever Moses or bnei yisrael need God’s mercy, they are to recite these attributes and God will hear their prayer. Thus the significance of this moment, not only for Moses but for all future generations of Jews, is not to be underestimated.
Speaking of God’s tallit, you may not know this but I have something of a tallis collection myself. My favorite is one that I had made by a wonderful tapestry artist in Washington DC named Shirley Waxman. I saw one of her tallitot a few summers ago for the first time on a child in the special needs program at Camp Ramah, and fell in love with her design. On the atarah (top part of the tallis) I had her embroider the words of the Psalmist: Ma Rabu Ma’asecha Adonai, Kulam B’chochma Asita: How manifold are Your works Oh God, You have crafted them all in wisdom. It is a powerful sentiment that reminds me not to take any of God’s creations for granted.
There is another moment that stands out for me in this week’s parsha which also makes this same point, and like the story of the little dot in the bet, underscores how a little thing can mean a lot. At the very beginning of the parsha we learn that Moses is to take a census of the people and that each person had to give a half-shekel to “give a ransom for his soul to the Lord.” This is basically the way in which a person became counted as part of the nation of Israel. But what was most significant is that every person was required to give precisely the same amount, and a small amount at that, to enable everyone to be counted equally among the people.
A half shekel but not a whole shekel; only two people giving a half could be combined into a complete shekel. This comes to teach us that a man is not complete, nor a Jew complete, without his fellow man. Moreover, no one knew who was joining with him to make a complete shekel, to teach us that even a common man in Israel has the power to make whole the greatest of the great.
This message is such an important one for us in our lives as citizens of the world, as Jews, and as members of this holy MWJDS community. Little gestures matter, details matter and each of us — no matter what our strengths or our means — has the ability to make someone else whole. Furthermore, if we remember the little dots in life, each of us has the potential to know the true name of God, to capture a small bit of the Divine for our very own. And it doesn’t take building a Golden Calf, as our ancestors mistakenly did in this week’s parsha; all we need to do is give our half-shekel and be counted.