“Words are like bodies; meanings are like souls.” (Moses Ibn Ezra)

In the Hebrew language, slight variations of the same word can change not only the meaning of that word, but the context of an entire concept. A fascinating example of a Talmudic disagreement over a single Hebrew letter reveals a profound idea.

We recite the hamotzi blessing before eating bread. The Talmud1 relates a debate between Rabbi Nechemia and the rabbis regarding the appropriate wording of that blessing. Rabbi Nechemia believed that the blessing should be motzi lechem min ha-aretz (“Who brought forth bread from the earth”). His colleagues felt that the blessing should read hamotzi. The only difference is the addition of one Hebrew letter, hey. Why should this slight difference in the word matter?

The source of this disagreement can be found in this week’s Torah portion. G‑d commands Moshe to tell the Israelites: “You will know that I am the L‑rd, your G‑d, the one who brings you out [hamotzi] from under the burdens of Egypt.”2 Why does it say “who brings you out” when the Israelites were still enslaved? It would seem that the future tense, “who will bring you out,” would have conveyed a more accurate message.

From this verse, Rabbi Nechemia understood that the word hamotzi implies the future—that the Israelites will know their subjugation to Egypt would end, even while they were presently enslaved. He therefore argues that the blessing over bread should be recited with the word motzi—in the past tense since the wheat has already been taken out of the earth.

In contrast, the other rabbis, while agreeing that the blessing over bread should reflect the past tense, broaden the scope of the word hamotzi, implying its reference to the past, as well as the present and future.

While the rabbis debate this, the law follows the sages, and we say hamotzi, which, according to them, can mean past as well as present and future. We can learn from this that according to the sages, the word hamotzi in the verse referring to the Exodus out of Egypt can also refer to past, present and future. And so perhaps we can suggest a deeper insight in the Exodus, in that it denotes an ongoing redemptive process.

“You will know that I am the L‑rd, your G‑d, the one who brings (hamotzi) you out from under the burdens of Egypt.”3 Hamotzi is an attribute of G‑d that is ongoing. The one G‑d of Israel continually vivifies the act of redemption—of taking us out.

This broader understanding emphasizes Divine providence as it transcends time. Rather than being a one-time static action, we recognize a dynamic process. Past, present and future are synthesized, forming an ongoing redemptive process in which G‑d is the sole source.

The Hebrew word Mitzrayim (“Egypt”) comes from the root metzar, “constriction.” Just as G‑d took us out of Egypt, He is constantly creating the redemptive process that can liberate us from that which constricts or enslaves us.

As individuals and as nations, we strive to be liberated from the constrictions that afflict us. Look around at how society has become enslaved by drugs, violence, hate and toxic beliefs. Many of us are shackled by negative thoughts, self-destructive behaviors or even just the pressure of trying to keep up with our neighbors.

The Mishnah states that “in every generation, one is obligated to see himself as having been taken out of Egypt.”4 This is not just referencing the historical liberation of Hebrew slaves. Egypt represents a state of physical, mental and spiritual constriction.

A crisis or trauma can enslave or empower each of us; we can descend into despair or transcend our situation. Likewise, living and maintaining the so-called “good life” of material pleasures and comforts can become enslaving.

As we strive to strike a balance between our material and spiritual pursuits, we can recognize that life isn’t about having more but about being more.

We’re not just going through life, but growing through life. Our journey has value—not merely as a means to a greater end, but in and of itself. What we learn along the way can help us actualize our latent potential.

Making It Relevant

  1. Quickly read the following phrase: GODISNOWHERE
    Did you see that “G‑d is nowhere” or did you see “G‑d is now here?” Recognize how much your entire outlook can be altered by your understanding of a single word, letter or even space.
  2. Be mindful of the meanings that you attach to written and spoken words. Recognize that others might attach different meanings to the same words. Clarify, before assuming that you understand them.
  3. The next time you eat a sandwich, take a moment to reflect on G‑d’s continual involvement in the most mundane aspects of our lives. Make it food for thought.