This week I'd like to discuss three seemingly unrelated questions about the words of the tephilla:
While many tephillos are written with an alphabetic motif, it is far more rare for the alphabet to be presented in the reverse. What concept were the authors trying to express with this sequence?
The Kuzari makes a point of explaining that by "The First" and "The Last" we don't mean that G-d has a beginning or an end. But this begs the question. First and last are terms that refer to a sequence. Something can be the first of a list, or the last in a collection. What is the list here? Of what is Hashem first and last?
Aristotle has two separate studies of events -- causality and teleology. He believed that every event has a cause, an event that preceded it that forced it to happen, and a telos, an following event that was the purpose for this one.
Teleology is in disfavor today. Particularly in the era of Darwin, when life was seen to be the product of accident, the concept of telos was attacked, called a "fallacy" of the classical mind. For the Jew, however, there is no question. G-d created the universe, He did it for a purpose, and He insures that the purpose will be met.
Everything has two reasons for happening: its cause and its purpose. This is provides us an answer to our last question. "Ki", when used for because, introduces the cause. Therefor, in the levitic song for Tuesday, we find "Let us greet Him with thanksgiving, with song let us shout for joy with Him. Ki -- because G-d is a great L-rd..."
"Lima'an" is associated with purpose. In the words of the Shema, "lima'an yirbu yimeichem, viymei bneichem -- so that you will have many days, and your children have many days...."
Aristotle was convinced the universe was infinitely old, and that it would last forever. Part of the reason for this belief is because of his concepts of "cause" and "telos".
The cause of an event always happens before the event itself. For example, because the wind blew a leaf off the tree, it fell. First is the wind, then the falling. But every event has a cause. The wind too is an event, and it too has an earlier cause. We can keep on chasing earlier and earlier causes, and notice that the universe must have been older and older. This gives us a sequence of events, cause to effect, cause to effect.... In fact, Aristotle saw no end to this chain, and there for couldn't believe the universe had a beginning.
The Rambam, in the Guide to The Perplexed (vol. 2, ch. 14), points out the flaw in this reasoning. He defines G-d as the First Cause.
We can now approach our second question. G-d is first of the sequence of causes. "Atoh Hu rishon -- You are The First [Cause]."
Aristotle has a similar argument that the universe could have no end. The purpose of an event, what the event should accomplish, comes after the event. The purpose for G-d providing wind to blow was that He wanted the rock to fall. Again, every purpose is also an event, and we have another sequence we can chase forever, in this case later and later in time.
This answers the second half of the question. G-d is The Last, The Culminating Purpose of all of creation. "All is called in My Name, and for My Glory I have Created it." (Isa. 43:7)
In Birchas Hamazon, in the "harachaman" we add for Shabbos, the culmination of human history is called "Yom Shekulo Shabbos", the day/time that is entirely Shabbos. Shabbos is called "mei'ein olam haba -- the image of the World to Come". This concept is also the subject of the Shamoneh Esrei for Shabbos Mincha.
Shabbos is not only testimony to creation, that Hashem is the First Cause. Shabbos is also intimately connected to, and preparation for, relating to G-d as the Culminating Purpose.
Rav Yaakov Emden connects the reverse alphabetical ordering of Tikanta Shabbos with the concept of Mei'ein Olam Haba. We can suggest that this is the reason why. The sequence of letters in the alphabet are used to represent the sequence of events of history. The order of letters shows how we are viewing that sequence.
Normally, we can only see G-d's hand in the world as First Cause. We look around and see "how great are your works, Hashem." The alphabet of this world starts with alpha, the one-ness of G-d, and unfurls to the plurality of creation. Shabbos, however, we reverse the order -- we start with the plurality of the universe, and end with the one-ness of G-d.
The zemer says, "mei'ein olam haba, yom Shabbos menuchah -- in the image of the World to Come, the day of Shabbos brings rest." When we realize that everything that happens to us is for a purpose, everything is part of that pursuit of the Culminating Purpose, then we are at peace.© 1995 The AishDas Society