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07/09/2018 04:42:03 PM


Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld

The Broken Vav
Pinchas, 5778

Recently I began learning how to be a sofer, a ritual scribe.  I am very grateful to my teacher, R. Eliezer Adam for spending hours of his time in training me.  My goal is to write a Torah scroll.  In order to accomplish this goal I am first writing a Megillat Esther, of which I am more than halfway done.  After finishing that, I plan on writing a second Megillat Esther.  After that, I plan on writing a Torah scroll.  I pray that Hashem will give me the strength to complete this goal.

The reason why I want to write a Torah scroll is first and foremost because it is a mitzvah to write one.  One can fulfill this mitzvah through other ways than actually writing one, like for example writing Torah books or buying a Torah scroll. But in its purest form the actual mitzvah is to write a Torah scroll.

When I started learning safrus I didn’t realize just how much I would enjoy the task of writing sacred words.  Writing holy letters has allowed me to feel a deep connection to the holy words and by extension to our Creator.  I plan on talking in more detail about this feeling on another occasion.

For now, I want to focus on another aspect of learning safrus.  This project has brought me to a deeper appreciation of the text of the Torah, by which I mean the way the words are actually written in our sacred scrolls.  By writing each letter slowly and carefully we are able to notice things that we would otherwise pay less attention.

An example of this appears at the beginning of this week’s parasha.

The portion opens with the story of Pinchas.  Pinchas, the grandson of Aharon, saw Zimri the Prince of Shimon and Kozbi the Midianite woman, sinning at the entrance to the sanctuary.  In a zealous act Pinchas takes a spear and kills them both at the exact same time.  Hashem praises Pinchas for his passion and says, “Hineni noten lo et briti shalom, I therefore grant him my covenant of peace” (Bemidbar 25:12).

On the basis of this verse the Talmud teaches us an esoteric law: 

“A kohen who serves in the Temple with a physical blemish invalidates the service.  The source for this is the verse, “hineni noten lo et briti shalom”; i.e. the kohen can serve when he is shalem—complete, but not when he is chaser, blemished.  [Asks  the Talmud,] it does not say, shalem, complete, but rather, shalom, peace? Answers Rav Nachman, the vav of shalom is ketiah (Kiddushin, 66b).”

In other words, the Talmud is saying do not read this as God giving Pinchas a brit shalom, but rather a brit shalem.  In order to arrive at the reading the Talmud severs the vav of shalom.

The covenant of peace that Gd gives Pinchas contains a broken vav.  This week I started thinking about this question from the perspective of a sofer.  How are we supposed to write this vav?  What is it supposed to look like?

I saw four different approaches to the question.

Ritva says that the vav ketiah means that the sofer should draw a vav with a break in it—meaning, cutting off the vav in the middle (after drawing a letter that looks like a yud) and leaving a space and then resuming drawing the bottom line of a vav after a gap. However, R. Akiva Eiger says that one should not do it this way because if one does it this way then one has invalidated the Torah scroll by drawing a letter with a break in it!

A second approach is that of Maharsha.  Maharsha says that one should draw a regular vav just much smaller—meaning, once the letter is bigger than a yud, the scribe should stop and not extend it to the full length of a vav.

Mahari Beirav offers a third opinion: that the vav should actually be written as a yud.  So the word should be written as shalim (pure or complete) and read as shalom.

A fourth opinion is that of Radvaz.  He argues that one should draw a regular vav but there should be a break the size of a very, very, very thin line, the size of a hair—a break so small that it does not technically invalidate the Torah.  This break should be on a diagonal through the bottom half of the vav.  In this manner, the vav should be both –devukah vegam chatucha -- connected and broken at the same time.  Many poskim go on at length to discuss exactly how to do this.  This is the normative approach.  I checked two of our own Torah scrolls and both had this type of break.

I am very taken by this idea that the vav should be both devukah vegam chatucha – complete and broken at the exact same time!

At first I thought that this is an impossibility.  How can a vav be both complete and broken at the same time?  But then I realized that it is a deeply symbolic idea for all of us.  In order for us to achieve shalom in the world, we all need to feel both complete and broken at the exact same time.

What does it mean to feel both complete and broken at the same time?

To feel complete is to feel strength and happiness.  It is to feel at peace with our lives and endless gratitude for our lot along with a responsibility to recognize that we have a mission to serve God.  But if we just feel complete and don’t feel any brokenness then we are missing out on a connection to all the brokenness that exists in our world.  There are so many broken souls and it is our job to be aware of these souls at all time.

To feel the brokenness is to be constantly aware that there are so many people in the world who are in need of our help and that it is our job to help them.  But we also can’t only feel the brokenness because if we are just feeling the brokenness then we will miss out on the beauty of life and the glorious kindness of Hashem Yisboruch.

When we go through life we must be like the broken vav of Pinchas’ brit shalom.  We must be kerusa and devukah at the same time—broken and whole at the same time!

The symbolism of the vav ketiah is that in order to connect with other people and build our communal sanctuary we need to carry the lesson of being both broken and whole.

Of all the letters to break why did the Torah break the vav.  

This is no coincidence, but deeply symbolic.

Vav is a letter but in the Torah it also means a hook.  The vavim of the mishkan were the hooks of the mishkan that literally held the pillars of the mishkan together.  The Torah refers to them as vavei haamudim, the hooks of the pillars.

Amud can mean a pillar of the mishkan, but it can also refer to a column of the Torah scroll. 

This double meaning is connected to another custom about the letter vav.

Almost every amud of a Torah scroll (typically there are 248 columns) begins with the letter vav, except for 6 columns, that spell out be-yah shemo (his name is God). 

This is a strong custom that is found in our legal codes (see for example, Rema). 

Vav means a hook, but it also means to connect.  So nearly every column is reminding us that when we study Torah it is our responsibility to try and connect with others. But vav can also mean to disconnect—as in but, or however.  So nearly every amud of the Torah is carrying this message of kerusa and devukah at the same time.

According to the Zohar this meaning of the vav goes back to the earliest days of creation.

Back in the beginning of creation we remember the story of Kayin killing his brother Hevel.

In response Hashem places a mark on kayin.  Says the Torah: Vayasem Hashem lekayin ot, Hashem placed a symbol on Kayin so that no one who would find him would hurt him” (Bereishit 4:15).

The holy Zohar tells us that the sign that Hashem placed on Kayin’s forehead was the letter vav.

Of all things to use as a sign, Hashem chose the letter vav.  

Why vav?

Remember what Kayin said when Hashem asked him where was his brother, Hevel.  He said, “Hashomer achi anokhi, Am I my brother’s keeper?” (Bereishit 4:9).

By placing the vav on Kayin’s head, Hashem is answering that question with an emphatic, yes.  We are indeed our brother’s keeper!

It is the vav of connectivity, the vav of responsibility, the vav of brokenness—all wrapped up in one letter.

This message of the vav is essential for us to be considering at all times, but especially during this time of year which we call bein hametzarim, or the three weeks.

It is a time where it is especially appropriate to work on our interpersonal relationships.  More than that it is a time to especially notice the brokenness in our relationships that exist around us in the world.  It is a time for us to do our part to try and heal some of the divisiveness.

This year I want to challenge our holy congregation, our spiritual community, to try and really take to heart this message and not just let it pass through us.

So this year I am asking all of us to put our hearts and souls together and to participate in a Tikkun Kamtza U’Bar Kamtza.

What is a Tikkun Kamtza U’Bar Kamtza?

To be exact it is something we are still fine-tuning. We started working on it last seudat shelishit and we are still working on it.

The Talmud tells us: "Jerusalem was destroyed because of Kamtza and Bar Kamtza” (Gittin, 55b). It is the story of a man—Bar Kamtza--thrown out of a party who then turns his wrath upon the Jewish nation.  This year we will bring ritual and the spiritual concept of tikkun (repair) to the story.  We will not only study a text but also fully incorporate the story into our souls through a three-part tikkun ceremony:
B-Introspection (facilitated by Rachel Milner Gillers)
C-Creation of a Reflection Object that we will display throughout the year in order to help remember the lessons of the story (facilitated by Rena Fruchter).

One of the powerful ideas that came out of our working seudat shelishit last week was that we as a community should also reenact the breaking.

Even before we get to the Tikkun Kamtza U’Bar Kamtza, we will prepare for the Tikkun by having a Breaking Ceremony immediately following the reading of the Book of Eichah on the night of Tisha Be’Av.  At this ceremony we will carefully break some glass, which we will then turn into our tikkun object on Tisha Be’Av day.

I feel like every year we simply reread the story of Kamtza and Bar Kamtza without properly internalizing it.  There are many lessons to be learned from this story, but the tikkun of this story must begin with brokenness—with recognizing that there is so much brokenness around us and that we do have the power to turn into wholeness.

We must live our lives as kerusah udevakah—very much aware of the brokenness and wholeness around us.

We must live every day as a tikkun to the brokenness in the world around us.

It is only by living as both kerusa and devukah that we are worthy of brit shalom.

Mon, July 13 2020 21 Tammuz 5780