In the late 1920’s my paternal grandfather and namesake, R. Aharon Leib, went to the sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, for a berachah, a blessing.

The blessing he requested was that his children grow up to be G‑d-fearing and righteous.

The Rebbe responded: “A berachah is similar to rain. One must first prepare the soil by plowing and sowing. After that, G‑d helps; there begins to rain ‘a rain of blessing,’ and then the crops grow.”

Design

The fifth letter of the alef-beis is the hei.

The Maharal1 tells us that the design of the hei is comprised of a dalet and a yud. The dalet is composed of one horizontal line (signifying width) and another that is vertical (signifying height), which together represent the physical world, the world of materialism. The yud (the detached left leg) represents G‑d, and thus spirituality. The Maharal teaches us that just as the dalet and the yud come together to form the hei, so, too, one has an obligation to imbue and sanctify the physical world with spirituality and G‑dliness.

In Chassidic thought,2 the hei represents thought, speech and action. Just as the form of the hei is composed of three lines, so do thought, speech and action comprise the three garments of the soul, the three garments through which we express our­selves.

The top horizontal line (thought), by its very design, repre­sents the concept of equality. To truly experience every person as equal, one must restructure one’s thought process. Perhaps it appears on the surface that some people are better and some are worse than others. But our responsibility is to focus instead on the soul, the G‑dly spark within each person.3 Since our souls emanate from the same Source, we are all equal in our essence. When we delve beneath the personality and externality of a person and go straight to his or her core, we experience that we are all one.

The hei’s right vertical line represents hierarchy, which is speech. A king rules with his words.4 He is empowered to sit in his palace and utter a decree, which then becomes law. People do not have to see him. He does not have to shake their hands. All he needs to do is speak; that is his power. The vertical line of the hei descends from a higher state, the ruler, to a lower state, his subjects.

Finally, the shorter, detached leg on the left side of the hei represents action. Why is this limb detached? It is very easy for us to think and speak about what is right, but it is quite another thing to bring a good intention to fruition. Therefore, the gap serves as a reminder of the effort that is required to unify all three garments. Without the line of action, we’re left with the two lines of the dalet: poverty.

The Talmud5 informs us that the hei also represents teshuvah—repentance. To appreciate how the form of the letter hei embodies the concept of teshuvah, compare the hei, ה, to the ches, ח,6 the eighth letter of the alef-beis. Both forms look very much alike. Each is made up of three lines. The one conspicu­ous difference is the small aperture atop the hei’s left limb. What does this have to do with teshuvah? G‑d declares to Cain after he kills his brother Abel, “Sin (chatas) lies at your door.”7 The opening (or door) on the bottom of both the hei and the ches represents sin. With the ches, there can be no escape from the “door of sin” without transgression (i.e., without exiting through the bottom of the ches). But the hei has another open­ing, another possible course of action. The little opening at the top of the hei allows for the possibility of teshuvah, or return.5

The difference between the ches and the hei can also be illus­trated by comparing chametz (leaven) and matzah. Compare the spellings of the two words: Chametz is spelled חמצ,8 ches, mem, tzaddik. Matzah is spelled מצה, mem, tzaddik, hei. The differ­ence between chametz and matzah is the letter ches versus the hei. Chametz, leaven, represents being puffed up, the ego.9 Matzah is flat, representing subservience, selflessness, and humility. If a person is humble, he will come to repent, to do teshuvah. But if a person is an egotist, he will never return to G‑d. What is his attitude? “What do I need G‑d for? I’m doing great on my own. Look how successful I am.” Or if he wants to get away with bad behavior he might say, “What do you want from me? I’m only human. If G‑d wanted me to be perfect, He would have made me that way. G‑d gave me a yetzer hara, an evil inclination. He set it up so that I should sin. So why should I do teshuvah?” The egotist has no reason to repent. He is stuck in his ways and cannot admit his faults. The egotist is bloated with the ches of chametz, of leaven. The hei on the other hand is like matzah: flat and altruistic. Its very design contains an opening, a gap for an individual to pass through if he is hum­ble. The hei is a human being’s adoption of humility, the gateway to repentance.

In a broader sense, we need to understand that teshuvah does not only involve regret for commission of a sin, it means re­turning to one’s essential self. As such, teshuvah is relevant for every individual, even the rare individual who has never sinned. The Zohar10 tells us that when Mashiach comes, he will cause even the righteous to repent. Every person will realize that no matter what his level, he can always be better. He can constantly come closer and closer to G‑d. One can accomplish this by perfecting his thought, speech and action. As man perfects himself, “G‑d helps; there begins to rain ‘a rain of bless­ing,’ and the crops begin to grow.”

Gematria

The numerical value of hei is five. Not only does the hei repre­sent the garments of thought, speech and action, but these garments comprise a total of five elements:11 two levels of thought, imaginative and meditative; two levels of speech, the words of the heart and the words of the lips; and one level of action. Why does action only have one level? Because when it comes to action, you either do something or you don’t. There­fore, in the design of the hei, the line representing action (the separate vertical segment of the hei) is half a line.

Five also signifies the five levels of the soul: nefesh, ruach, neshamah, chayah and yechidah.12 The fifth tier, yechidah, means union. People commonly refer to this level of the soul as the pintele Yid, the G‑dly spark that every Jew possesses. The pintele Yid is the spark that can never become contaminated or extinguished, the spark that unites every Jew with G‑d.

The pintele Yid is also the propelling force behind mesirus nefesh, self-sacrifice. This concept of self-sacrifice makes it possible for a Jew to give his life to G‑d even though he has never practiced or felt consciously connected to Jewish law or custom. A Jew who has violated the Shabbos or eaten non-kosher food, who has never had a mezuzah on his door or given a penny to charity, is also the Jew who, when faced with the ultimatum “your G‑d or your life,” is willing to give up his life for G‑d. This revelation is astonishing. How is it possible that this non-observant Jew is suddenly willing to give up his life for G‑d? Mesirus nefesh makes sense for someone like Abraham or Rabbi Akiva, who learned Torah all their lives. But what of the person who has never opened a Jewish book and doesn’t know that you read Hebrew from right to left? The answer is the pintele Yid. This fundamental connection to G‑d is intrinsic to his being and can never be severed.

When it comes to a mitzvah such as keeping kosher, the non-observant Jew says to himself, “If I don’t eat kosher, what’s the big deal? G‑d is spiritual. Why should He really care what I eat as long as I’m a good person? If I eat pork, surely that won’t sever my relationship with G‑d.” Or perhaps he says, “So what if I don’t go to shul on Shabbos and mow my lawn instead! The rabbi’s sermon is boring anyway. Of course this isn’t severing my relationship with G‑d. G‑d will forgive me. He’ll under­stand.” But, when it comes to giving up his religion, this same Jew recognizes that there’s no room for ambivalence. “Obvi­ously G‑d would not forgive me for abandoning my faith. I’d be clearly stating that I don’t love or believe in Him. If that’s the case, I’m willing to give up my life rather than give up my G‑d.” This is the essential core of teshuvah. The reason we have an awakening to return is because of the yechidah level of the soul. This spark of the soul ignites the rest of our being, fueling its return to G‑d.

The number five also represents redemption. In the Pesach Seder there is a fifth cup of wine called the cup of Elijah the Prophet. Elijah, the harbinger of the Redemption, will tell us to do teshuvah, for Mashiach is about to come. This promise is also represented by the expression in the Torah:13 “ I will bring you into the land [of Israel].” The Rambam14 tells us that when all of the Jewish people do teshuvah, we will be immediately redeemed.15

Meaning

The word hei has three meanings: The first is “here is,” as in the verse, “Here is seed for you”16 (hei lachem zera).17 The next is “to be disturbed,” as it states in Daniel18 “And I Daniel was disturbed....(nih’yeisi)” And the third is “behold”19 as in “Behold, this is our G‑d...,” (hinei Elokeinu...) which refers to beholding a revelation. These three definitions converge. When we’re born and come into this world, G‑d gives us seeds (i.e., the potential to be productive and make good of our lives). Many times, however, we become disturbed and confused and lose sight of our objectives. Eventually, though, every Jew will come to do teshuvah and acknowledge his Creator. He will then behold the revelation of G‑d.

By elevating one’s thought and speech and translating them into action, one reveals the yechidah, the fifth level and spark of Mashiach within his soul,20 and this will bring us to the ulti­mate Redemption.