Lazer Gurkow

The Secret Alef

The secret alef is the mystery of this week’s Torah portion. Alef is the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Hebrew letters also serve as numbers. Thus, alef is one; it represents G-d, who exists alone. He is one, and there is no other. By that, we mean not only that there is no other G-d, but that nothing else exists.

Of course, you might look in the mirror and think that you exist. When someone pinches you, it hurts. It wouldn’t hurt if you didn’t exist. But we only exist as part of G-d’s existence. This is a deep concept but let me try to simplify it. G-d is Omnipresent; He occupies all space. But if He is everywhere, there is no space for us. Where do we exist? Something has to give; either He takes up all the space, or there is space for us. Unless we are part of Him and nothing exists outside of Him.

We are like a ray of light inside the sun. No one can look at the sun and separate the ray from the sun. The sun is a luminous bulb from which rays emerge. If rays emerge from the sun, they must, perforce, exist inside the sun. Yet, you won’t find rays in the sun. When you look at the sun you only see the sun. this is because rays inside of the sun are part of the sun.

When they emerge from the sun, they assume their own identity as rays. If you ask a ray what it is, it will reply, “I am what the sun looks like outside of itself.” But here is the catch. Nothing emerges from G-d because G-d is everywhere. Thus, no matter where we are, we are like rays inside the sun.

One sunny day, a wave was riding along the beautiful ocean when it noticed all the waves were crashing against a boulder and splintering into thousands of droplets. It got scared and nudged its fellow wave, “Oh my goodness, do you see what’s coming?” The other wave rode on nonchalantly. The first wave couldn’t understand. “Don’t you get it,” she asked. “No,” replied the other wave, “you don’t get it.  You are not a wave; you are part of the ocean.”

We are not waves; we are part of the ocean. We are not rays; we are part of the sun. We are not apart from G-d. We are a part of G-d. It is no surprise that we are easily confused. The distinction is subtle. We are either apart from G-d or a part of G-d. it sounds so similar, but the distinction is huge.

The World of Bet
This truth is not well known in our world. As we discussed last week, G-d is concealed. It looks like He absented Himself from our world. This is why the Torah does not begin with an alef. Rather, it begins with a bet, the second letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Bet represents the number two. The Torah speaks to us in this world. The world where the alef is concealed. Where it seems that in addition to the one, there is another—G-d and me.

Manny had a garment store on Canal Street in the Chinatown section of Manhattan. Business was poor, so he consulted with his rabbi, who advised him to partner with G-d. Manny bought a large neon sign and rebranded his store, G-d & Manny. As predicted, business took off. He expanded and expanded until his advisors told him to move his business to Fifth Avenue.

Manny landed a choice location on Fifth Avenue and installed his neon sign G-d & Manny. He opened his doors, and no one showed up. He returned to his rabbi and asked why G-d had failed him. The rabbi replied, “Oh Manny, you fool. On Canal Street, it’s G-d & Manny. On Fifth Avenue, it’s Lord & Tailor.”

The rabbi had it wrong both on Canal Street and on Fifth Avenue. It is never G-d & Manny. It is only G-d. However, in our world, this tidbit is rather unknown. That is why the Torah begins with a bet, which connotes the illusion that we exist apart from G-d rather than as a part of G-d.

When Mashiach comes, G-d’s oneness will be as obvious and revealed as our existence is today. When Mashiach comes, it will be neither Manny & G-d nor G-d & Manny. It will be only G-d. We will perceive ourselves as part of the alef—part of G-d. That is the truest aspect of the messianic redemption. We will be redeemed from our own EGO, which stands for Edging G-d Out.

Bo—Back to Alef
This week’s Torah portion describes the first redemption in Jewish history—the redemption from Egypt. This is why the name of our portion—Bo, is spelled bet alef. Redemption connotes transitioning from the bet mindset to the alef mindset. Bo means to arrive. It connotes our arrival to the alef mindset.

This also explains why the Hebrew word for Redemption, geulah, and the Hebrew word for exile, golah, are practically the same. The only difference is that geulah is spelled with an alef and golah is missing the alef. Redemption is achieved when bo—the bet embraces the alef. We are part of G-d. Nothing exists outside of G-d. G-d is one and the only one. In the golah, the alef mindset is absent; therefore, the alef doesn’t appear in the word golah. Geulah is the same as golah, only with an alef mindset.

The same is true of the Hebrew word Adam, which means human. Adam also begins with an alef. The rest of the word—dam, means blood. There is no fundamental physiological difference between a human and an animal. Both are writhing sacks of blood and bones. The difference is that humans are capable of acknowledging G-d’s truth—the alef. With the alef, we are human. Without it, we are all about ourselves. No different and no better than animals.

Embracing the alef is the purpose and the journey of life. It is the journey from selfishness to selflessness, from living in a vacuum to living in G-d’s palace. It is the difference between living in exile and in redemption. It is the difference between an animal and a human. It is the difference between being filled with our own ego and being filled with G-dliness.

When we are part of G-d, we ask the question, mah—what? But for G-d, what am I? What is there? It is a rhetorical question that answers itself. But for G-d, there is nothing.

The Hebrew word mah is spelled mem hei. Numerically, mem is forty and hei is five. The numeric values of the words geulah—redemption and adam—human is forty-five. The message is that the alef—the mindset of G-d’s oneness, the humble embrace of mah, is the apex of humanity and the fulcrum of redemption. Without the alef, there is no geulah. What is left is forty-four, the value of golah—exile.

About the Author
Rabbi Lazer Gurkow, a renowned lecturer, serves as Rabbi to Congregation Beth Tefilah in London Ontario. He is a member of the curriculum development team at Rohr Jewish Learning Institute and is the author of two books and nearly a thousand online essays. You can find his work at