Contemplating Hebrew Letters || Peh

17
peh

hirp
Pharaoh

 

     And the Pharaoh’s heart was hardened and he did not let the Children of Israel go . . .

 

Exodus 9:35

The story of the Jews’ Exodus from Egypt is one of the most poignant tales of freedom in all of human history. Their harsh ruler, the Pharaoh, refuses to let them leave the country despite a series of plagues that the God of the Hebrews sends upon him. After every plague descends—blood, frogs, lice, swarms of wild beasts, epidemic, boils, hail, locusts, and complete darkness—Moses turns to the Pharaoh and asks him to “let my people go.”

Nine times out of ten, the Pharaoh nearly relents, but at the last minute he “hardens his heart” and refuses. Only when the Plague of the Firstborn is carried out and the eldest son of every Egyptian household, including the Pharaoh’s, is killed at midnight, does he finally give in and tell Moses to take the people and all their belongings and leave.

Throughout history we’ve seen what evil the human heart is capable of—from the Pharaoh to Adolf Hitler to Osama bin Laden, there have been people who do things most of us cannot even fathom. Nevertheless, those people do exist, and they teach us a lesson: Sometimes we have to see the worst in life before we can start rising up again to create a better world.

We also see this, to a lesser extent, in our own lives. Sometimes we must sink to our lowest levels of behavior before we start to improve. Addicts, for example, often need a near-death experience to compel them toward rehabilitation; and people who are grieving for a personal loss must often experience a deep sense of depression before they can begin the healing process. The same thing happened to the Pharaoh—he needed to experience the harshest personal tragedy (the loss of his son) in order to recognize how many children had already died at his hand.

Peh is the word for “mouth” in Hebrew. Spelled the same way, but with a different pronunciation (“poh”), the word also means “here.” These two words and concepts are integrally linked: To speak is to be present, to be in the moment and consciously communicative. The Pharaoh needed to open his heart in order to open his mouth and give permission to let the people go—he needed to speak from the place of experience, from the present, from “here.”

There’s a famous rabbinic legend that says that when babies are in their mothers’ wombs, they’re endowed with all the knowledge in the world. When they’re born, however, an angel taps them on the upper lip, creating the indent there underneath the nose, and they instantly forget everything. The process of life, then, is one of slowly relearning and remembering things that we knew from the very start of our lives.

The Pharaoh also needed to go through a process of reconnecting with his lost humanity, finally accepting the fact that he wasn’t an immortal god, but was subject to plagues just like every other Egyptian. And when he finally did come to realize this, to rediscover some of his inner morality, he was able to harness the power of speech (a distinctly human quality) to let the Jews go.

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The Peh represents the incredible power of speech in our lives. Speaking is the catalyst for all action, and for any significant change in the world. To use our mouths, the ability that separates us from other life forms, is to be at our most powerful.

Look carefully at the shape of the Peh: Inside the black lines that form the letter, in the white space, there is a Bet. The Bet, as we’ve seen, is the first letter of the Torah, but it also represents looking at things from different angles. That the two letters are mystically intertwined teaches us a great lesson: Before we open our mouths to speak, we need to consider the bigger picture. Knowing that there’s always another layer of truth to consider will help us communicate most effectively in life.

We say that “actions speak louder than words,” but sometimes only words can lead us to profound action.

This card encourages you to soften your heart, open your mouth, and reclaim the knowledge that was given to you before you took your first breath. When you’ve accomplished those things, you can change the world.

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