There is, O One Without End, a story told about me by great sages.
I was, says the story, distraught at being cast out of Sarah’s name, and went about heaven wailing and lamenting. I asked, “is it perchance because I am the smallest among the letters that Thou hast taken me away from the name of the pious Sarah?” And you consoled me by saying, “formerly thou wert in a woman’s name, and, moreover, at the end. I will now affix thee to a man’s name, and, moreover, at the beginning.” This promise you fulfilled, the story concludes, when you added me to Hosea’s name and made him Joshua, before the spies went into the land of Canaan. (Legends 3:266)
I do not know who wrote this story, but do not believe it can have come from your inexhaustible and ineffable Self. It is a misrepresentation of my character and my needs, and a denial of my importance.
To begin with, I held it no indignity to be in a woman’s name. Do letters have gender, after all? Did you, did the writer of the story, have any reason to think I was male, or female? And whether male or female, what reason could there be for supposing I would share in whatever prejudices that story, no doubt falsely, attributes to you?
As for the difference between the beginning and the end – surely you who are both beginning and end, the Aleph and the Tav, who were before the beginning and who are without end, understand that this is a difference of little importance. Both beginning and end are places of honor, and the end, after all, has the last word – or, in this case, the last letter. And there are enough hierarchies in your book without adding to them the hierarchy of beginnings and endings! (In any case, if there is honor in beginnings, surely I had honor enough already, beginning as I do not only the name of Judah, who gives his name to our people and his lineage to our Messiah, may he or she come soon, but also your own name of names, the numinous and unspoken tetragrammaton.)
I did, in truth, weep at leaving Sarah’s name; how noble a character to be connected to, with all her fits of generous temper, her astonishing laughter, her zeal for her family and her people. But that you – or rather, forgive me, that the writer of the story - should think to console me by placing me at the beginning of Joshua’s name astonishes me. It is written, in another story, that in being added to Joshua’s name I made him more divine, having the honor as I do to be the letter with which your most sacred name begins. May I speak frankly? Joshua – humble Hosea as he was before – did not, really did not, need the balance of human and divine in him tilted towards the divine. When I read of what he did later, fueled by the divine zeal strengthened in him by my presence in his name – when I read of his implacable hostility towards all the Canaanites and their works – I wish only that he had been left more human, more humane, less possessed by the zeal that I, all unwittingly, may have contributed to augmenting. Perhaps, O Ruler of the universe, you would have done better then, and would do better now, to leave the letters in peace.
Or perhaps you should have asked me what sort of honor I actually desired! I would, I assure you, have proposed something quite different. I would have said, for example, that to honor me, you should have chosen to honor more greatly the woman whose name embraces me, the prophet Miriam, where I am, happily, in the middle, finding that too a place of distinction. (Perhaps it is because whatever I represent is, in Miriam’s name, in such intimate relation to the other letters and their meanings, that Miriam had so great a gift in dealing with those unlike her. Perhaps – though I leave this to your divine judgment – there is something masculine in the fascination with beginnings and endings, something feminine in seeing the virtues of middles?)
And had you done greater honor to Miriam, in token of doing greater honor to me, what good results could have come about! That destructive quarrel between Miriam and her noble brother, Miriam’s leprosy, the corruption and weakening of authority among the children of Israel generally – all this might have been avoided, Miriam’s strength enhanced and her time increased, and with her guidance, perhaps, the spies her brother sent into Canaan – including, perhaps, some women! – would have been less dubious, less affected by the weakening of the community, bolder in encountering the Canaanite wonders they beheld, and the living community might have proceeded into Canaan.
Perhaps, O Inexhaustible Spring, you might learn in this regard from how human beings treat me in that most human of all Jewish languages, namely, Yiddish – which I know you must speak, since otherwise you would be denying yourself the pleasure of conversing with Tevye the Dairyman! There, indeed, my place of honor is assured. For there they call me dos pintele yid, the essential dot of Jewishness, what remains Jewish when all else seems gone. And they honor me, too, not only when they write me, but also when they speak my unmistakeable and plaintive sound. The greatest of prophets, the greatest of kings and poets, whom the sacred tongue calls Mosheh and Shelomo – these great eminences receive an admixture of humanity and ordinariness through me when they are spoken of, and become the more accessible, less dogmatically zealous Moyshe Rabeynu and Shloyme Hemeylekh. What greater honor could I have than this, what greater contribution could I make?
We are all your creations, O founder of good and of all, and who am I, who is any letter, to reproach you? And yet, did you not make us so we could speak?
I, the letter yud, smallest and most essential of the letters,
wish you and our people a speedy coming of the longed-for age of peace.