Mem is the thirteenth letter of the Hebrew alphabet
Numerical value: 40
Sound: "M"
Meaning: 1. Water 2. Mashiach

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Story

When the mikveh in Brownsville, N.Y. wanted to close its doors because of financial difficulties, my mother’s paternal great-grandfather, Hersh-Meilech Hecht, volunteered to take over all the financial responsibilities and practical duties. In 1929, the sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneer­sohn, came to visit the Jews in America. The chassi­dim asked him to deliver a maamar, a Chassidic discourse. He responded that he must first immerse in a mikveh, a ritual bath. Normally, my grandfather charged ten cents for usage of the facilities, but not when a Rebbe used it. When he heard the Lubavitcher Rebbe was coming, he prepared the room in honor of the Rebbe as one would for a king.

On the way out of the mikveh, the Rebbe handed him a five-dollar bill (a lot of money in those days). Hersh-Meilech refused to take the money and asked for a blessing instead. The Rebbe blessed him and said, “Your grandchildren will become my chassidim and will learn in (my yeshivah) Tomchei Temimim.” And so it came to pass.

Design

The letter mem is the thirteenth letter of the alef-beis.

There are two forms of the mem: the open mem and the closed mem. As the Talmud explains,1 the open mem represents the revealed Torah and the closed mem represents the Torah’s secrets.

The AriZal states:2 “It is a mitzvah to reveal the secrets of Torah.” Being that we now find ourselves in the Messianic era, it is not just permitted, it is an obligation to experience a fore­taste of the teachings of Mashiach, which are the secrets of the Torah. This level of Torah is represented by the closed mem.

The Rambam begins his first book, the Mishneh Torah, with a section of laws entitled “The Foundations of Torah.” In this section, he discusses G‑d, the angels, and the heavens, and explains: “This that I told you up until now is called ‘the secrets of Creation and the secrets of the Chariot.’ ”3 These mystical insights are complex Kabbalistic concepts. Yet the Rambam decided to teach them as a foundation—a prerequisite for everyone who studies the Torah.4 The apprehension of G‑d’s awesomeness, of His stirring and unfathomable ways, must precede even the essential laws of the revealed Torah, such as the Shema, Shabbos and tefillin.

Additionally, the mem represents the womb5רחם (rechem)—which ends with a closed mem. The closed mem represents the nine months when the womb is closed. The open mem represents the period of childbirth, when the womb is open.

Gematria

The gematria of mem is forty. Forty is the number of days it rained upon the earth during the Flood. Forty is also the num­ber of days Moses spent on Mount Sinai. Moses actually ascended the mountain three separate times. The first forty-day sojourn took place when he received the Torah. Then Moses descended with the Tablets, but shattered them when he saw the Golden Calf that the people had made in his absence. The following morning Moses returned to the mountain for another forty days to pray on behalf of the Jewish people. When Moses returned to the encampment, G‑d called out6for him to return to the mountain, this time, with his own tablets. So Moses dug under his tent and found two sapphire stones.7 He brought them up with him to Mount Sinai for the third and final forty days, and G‑d engraved the Ten Commandments on them.8 It was the tenth of the month of Tishrei when Moses came down from the mountain with G‑d’s law after these final forty days. G‑d declared, “I have forgiven [the Jewish people] as you have asked.” The culmination of these three forty-day periods, the tenth of Tishrei, Yom Kippur, is thus the day we as the Jewish people fast and pray to atone for our sins.

There are other significant references to forty in the Torah: Moses’ spies scouted the land for forty days. The Jews were in the desert for forty years. And a mikveh, a ritual bath, is made up of forty se’ah (about 200 gallons).

What is the concept of forty? Forty represents a metamor­phosis,9 a transformation. After forty days, the embryo of a child begins to assume a recognizable form.10

Additionally, a mikveh (with its forty se’ah) has the ability to change an individual from a state of impurity to purity. And if one wants to undertake a conversion,11 one must immerse in a mikveh, whereupon his or her Jewish soul is revealed.

G‑d brought a flood upon this world for forty days and forty nights. The waters of the flood were not for revenge, as is commonly assumed, but for atonement, to purify and transform the world, in much the same way a mikveh purifies a person.12

Each of Moses’ forty-day sojourns in heaven signified a trans­formation. The first forty days was to receive the Torah, and when an individual learns Torah, he or she develops the ability to change for the better. The second trip was for prayer, tefillah. When a person prays, he or she can change an evil decree; in this case, G‑d’s intention to annihilate the Jewish people. Indeed, because of Moses’ supplications, G‑d was will­ing to bestow His mercy and once again offer them His Torah. The final ascent represented teshuvah (repentance)—also a transformation—because once a person has repented, he is no longer the same person he was when he sinned. When Moses finally returned to the Jewish people with G‑d’s law, they were at a level of atonement—and thus finally prepared to become G‑d’s nation.

Furthermore, the words Torah, tefillah and teshuvah begin with a tav, which has the numerical value of 400, or 40x10 (i.e., serving G‑d with all of one’s 10 faculties for 40 days).

The forty years that the Jews spent in the desert also consti­tuted a transformation. The nation that had rebelled against G‑d had metamorphosed into a nation that was ready to adhere to His word.

Meaning

The word mem stands for mayim, which means water. Water constitutes a vital element in our lives: a human being is largely composed of water and the majority of the earth is covered with it.

Torah, the most vital element in our spiritual lives, is referred to as water, as it states: “Ein mayim ela Torah13—There is no water but Torah.” As the Prophet tells us,14 “He who is thirsty shall go and drink water,” meaning that a Jew’s thirst for spiri­tuality will never be sated by looking to other cultures or religions. The only thing that will quench one’s thirst is water, which is Torah.

Just as a fish cannot survive without water, a Jew cannot survive without Torah. The story is told of a fish and a fox.15 The fish was busy evading a fisherman’s net when he spied a fox standing on the shore of the lake. The fox called out to the fish and said, “Little fish, where are you going?” The fish answered, “The fishermen are all trying catch me, so I’m trying to swim away!” Feigning concern, the conniving fox offered, “Little fish, come up out of the water. I will protect you.” Replied the fish, “Silly fox. In the water I still have a chance. But once I leave the water, I will surely die.”

A Jew without Torah is like a fish without water. Of course we know that the water isn’t without its difficulties. There is anti-Semitism. We run from country to country, trying to survive a Spanish Inquisition and a Holocaust. Yet even amidst the onslaught, we have persevered as a people. The moment we leave our culture, the moment we leave the water—our con­nection to G‑d and Torah—we are spiritually dead.

Torah is also compared to water because water travels unal­tered from the top of a mountain to its lower tiers and valleys. So did G‑d bring down the same deep, intellectual Torah He had in heaven to the physical world. The Zohar says that G‑d looked into the Torah to create the world. The Torah serves as a blueprint for Creation. The wealth and strength of its water carves, and continues to carve out the foundation of the entire world.

The Mishnah, the Oral Law of Torah, begins and ends with the letter mem. Its first word is M’eimasai16 and its concluding word is bashalom,17 “peace.” Furthermore, the Rambam18 also begins and ends his great work, the Mishneh Torah, with a membeginning the first chapter with the word Meshoch, and concluding the final volume with the word mechasim.

The mem also represents the womb. In essence, water is the womb of Creation. The Torah begins,19 “In the beginning G‑d created the heavens and the earth.” The next verse states that before G‑d created the heavens and the earth “...the spirit of G‑d hovered over the waters.”20 What waters? Since the earth’s waters had not yet been created, the waters mentioned here are the womb from which Creation emerged, the place of gestation before the world came into existence.

Mikveh embodies this concept as well. When one immerses in a mikveh, it is similar to entering the womb of Creation, a state of the world yet unborn. At the moment when the person emerges, he or she is reborn. On a more practical level, the individual submerged in a mikveh is in a medium where he or she can’t survive and will ultimately die. When the individual emerges from the water, he or she is renewed.21 The word mikveh also begins with the letter mem.22

It states in Isaiah:23L’marbei hamisra u’leshalom,” which means, “His rule (i.e., the kingship of Mashiach) will increase and be blessed with peace without end.” Throughout the entire Torah, the final form of the mem appears in the middle of a word only once—here, in the word לםרבה, l’marbei. What is the significance of this? That Mashiach will bring closure to the exile. We discussed earlier that the three lines of the letter beis—two horizontal and one vertical—represent three directions (or corners) of the earth. The north side, that which is open to evil, remains unresolved. With the arrival of Mashiach, the fourth side of the beis of Bereishis—Creation—is completed and the letter beis is transformed into a mem.24 And the emer­gence of this form of the mem in turn facilitates the consummation of its very own design, whereby the closed mem—the hidden or secret aspects of Torah—takes the place of the open mem, the revealed aspects of the Torah. For along with the everlasting peace of Mashiach will come the explanation of the reasons for the exile, and the pain and suffering of the Jewish people that accompanied it.

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