“The Lesson of the Broken Vav

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Pinchas, we learn the identities of the two defiant people who committed an act of public harlotry and were slain by Pinchas. The man was Zimri the son of Salu, a prince of the father’s house of the Simeonites. The Midianite woman was Cozbi the daughter of Zur, an important Midianite leader.

G-d praises Pinchas the son of Elazar, the son of Aaron the priest, for his brazen act, turning G-d’s wrath away from the Children of Israel. Scripture in Numbers 25:12 notes that G-d proclaims: “Lah’chayn eh’mor, he’n’nee noh’tayn lo eht b’ree’tee shalom,” Therefore, say: Behold! I give him [Pinchas] My covenant of peace.

Although a grandson of Aaron, Pinchas was not made a priest together with the sons of Aaron. As a reward for his actions, he was now given by G-d an eternal covenant of priesthood.

In a most unusual scriptural anomaly in the above verse, we find that the letter “vav” in the Hebrew word “Shalom,” peace, is broken. Under normal circumstances, any letter that is broken or incomplete would invalidate the entire Torah scroll, and yet, the law requires every valid Torah scroll to have a break in the letter “vav” of the word “Shalom. There is much speculation about the meaning of the broken “vav.” Confirming the antiquity of this anomaly, the Talmud in Kedushin 66b cites Rabbi Nachman, who states that the “vav” in the word Shalom, is k’tee’ah,” broken.

In his anthology on the Torah entitled Peninim On The Torah, Rabbi A.L. Scheinbaum cites Rabbi Shlomo Yosef Zevin, who offers an insightful explanation for the broken letter. Rabbi Zevin maintains that traditionally, there are two forms of “unity.” One, a “mechanical” unity, which is basically an external consolidation of different parts merged together. This unity creates an illusion of wholeness, but, in fact, is not truly whole. The true form of unity, however, is an organic, natural unity, of various parts joined together by internal forces, which create the essence of harmony. Declares Rabbi Zevin, the unity of the Jewish people can never be mechanical or fabricated, it must be organic. Thus, the letter “vav” cannot be broken. It has to be “Shalaym”–unified in total harmony. This message is best transmitted by the shocking presence of a broken “vav” in the text of the Torah.

Rabbi Yehuda Leib Eiger of Lublin, cited by the Iturei Torah, asserts that one who is zealous must be absolutely faultless in his motives. There cannot be a blemish or a break in his intentions or purpose. Again, a message best communicated by a broken “vav.”

Rabbi Berel Wein has, as usual, an interesting and insightful take on the broken “vav.” Rabbi Wein suggests that the “vav” is broken because:

Peace is very fragile, almost always difficult to maintain and it requires great effort to keep it together. All of human history bears out this fact. True peace, whether in the home, the family, amongst neighbors, in the synagogue, in the community and certainly between nations, is very hard to achieve and even more difficult to maintain.

Rabbi Wein notes that a blessing of a “Covenant of Peace” is a rather strange blessing for G-d to confer on a zealous person. The broken “vav” is, therefore, meant to convey a message to would-be “Pinchases” that zealotry is not an authentic Jewish way. It may be employed in highly exceptional circumstances, but it is never to be thought of as a normal or acceptable behavior. To make amends, Pinchas must now re-channel his zealous nature and make the extraordinary effort to emulate the behavior of his legendary grandfather Aaron, devoting his days and nights to pursuing and achieving peace and its continued maintenance.

Rabbi Aryeh Ben David, in his volume Around the Shabbat Table, cites Nachmanides in Deuteronomy 23:10, who underscores the unavoidable damage that is incurred by any person engaging in violence, even when it is legitimate and warranted. Rabbi Ben David writes:

The very zealousness that Pinchas needed to perform his act of bravery, bears within it the power to coarsen and desensitize his being, which may ultimately destroy him. One act of violence may make a succeeding act less offensive, resulting in a spiraling and uncontrollable cycle of zealotry. Having unleashed this power of zealousness, will Pinchas now be able to control it, or will this passion eventually consume and overpower him?

That is why, suggests Rabbi Ben David, Pinchas is rewarded with the Covenant of Peace, to assure that his essential nature will not become corrupted, and that his zealousness was truly for the sake of Heaven and for the purpose of peace.

There are many studies confirming that there can never really be total healing for one who has taken another person’s life, whether by accident, with absolutely no negligence, or justifiably in self-defense. Perhaps, this is why in ancient Israel there were cities of refuge. Those who accidently took another person’s life, resided in these cities together, in a would-be  therapeutic environment, learning from each other, and, hopefully, healing one another.

The trauma experienced by a moral person who takes the life of another person never entirely vanishes. That is why the Hebrew letter “vav” is broken. Rabbi Ben David writes that the broken “vav” serves “as a reminder that the experience and memory of Pinchas’ act will forever diminish the ‘peace’ that he will merit. Pinchas is honored for his valor, for unhesitatingly responding to the crisis at hand. At the same time, however, there is no glorification of zealousness or acts of violence.” It is a critical lesson that we all must take to heart.

May you be blessed.

Please note: The Fast of Shivah Assar b’Tammuz (the 17th of Tammuz) will be observed this year on Tuesday, June 25, 2013, from dawn until nightfall. The fast commemorates the breaching of the walls of Jerusalem, leading to the city’s and Temple’s ultimate destruction. The fast also marks the beginning of the “Three Week” period of mourning, which concludes after the Fast of Tisha b’Av that will be observed on Monday night and Tuesday, July 15th and 16th. Have a meaningful fast.