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The history of the Broken Vav

07/13/2023 11:52:24 AM


Rabbi Faryn Borella

Last week, while studying Parshat Pinchas with many of you at our Saturday morning Torah Study, we talked about a scribal phenomenon that is unique to Parshat Pinchas. After the Torah tells the story of Pinchas hearing the word of G-d and taking matters into his own hands and killing an Israelite man and a Midianite woman for engaging in sexual–and perhaps marital–relations, we learn that he and his descendants are designated priests everlastingly, and that he is awarded a בריתי-שלום- Briti-Shalom –My Covenant of Peace. Which was hard for so many of us to read, for why would an act of such zealotry and violence deserve reward, especially a reward invoking peace? 

What we learned last week is that there is a scribal tradition that, when one is writing a Torah, one is meant to write the letter vav of the word Shalom, in this particular instance, broken, or severed. And the question then becomes, why? Did our ancestors too feel uncomfortable with the notion of such violence meriting reward, so they intervened to demonstrate that this peace would always be a broken one?

So we opened up our Or Shalom Torah to take a peak at this scribal phenomenon and–behold–the vav of Shalom was not severed. We all looked at each other, confused. What could this mean? Was our Torah wrong for not including this broken vav that many of us had already become attached to?

So I asked around, consulting with sofertet–Jewish scribes–about what they know about this tradition, and here is what I learned.

We first learn of the broken vav in the Babylonian Talmud, as told by Rav Nahman around the year 300 CE. The word he used to describe this vav–קטיעה– could be translated one of two ways: puny, or mutilated.

Most early scribal traditions actually followed the first definition of the word קטיעה– small, or puny. So you see in the word Shalom in parshat Pinchas not a severed vav, but a small vav (which, I will say, as we looked at our Torah on Saturday, we were curious if the vav of our Torah was slightly smaller than the surrounding vavs).

However, around the year 1500 CE, as the scribal tradition grew more and more particular about the perfection of every Torah, they faced a problem. What is a small vav ו but a yud י? We couldn’t have people thinking that the word was שלים, so they added an extra stroke under the small vav, rendering it severed, as in the second translation of the word קטיעה. Still kosher.

And yet, they now faced another problem. Broken letters in the Torah simply are not kosher. Why would it be okay in this instance to have a broken letter? Doesn’t that render the whole Torah unfit for use?

So scribes and people concerned with the scribal tradition and the perfection of Torah began going to great lengths to simply avoid Parshat Pinchas. They wouldn’t take an aliyah while this part of Torah was read. Or, more than that, they would just avoid going to synagogue altogether the week of Parshat Pinchas to avoid having to confront the discord–the contradiction–of that broken vav.

And I can’t help but see the metaphor in this.

How often do we turn away from, avoid, run from that which is broken in the world? Even those of us who see our role as Jews as tikkun olam–the repair of the world. Often, we too, see the enormity of the brokenness, we enter overwhelm, and we shut down. We turn away. We just don’t go to the synagogue that is our world that week. Sometimes, we’d rather just not face the brokenness, for if we don’t face it, we can believe in the illusion of perfection, if only for a moment.

Yet, I believe the brokenness is itself the message. The prophecy.

According to our tradition, Pinchas’s actions were both right and wrong. Good and bad. We praise it, and we are uncomfortable with it. The intent behind the action was to protect the Israelite people from outside corrupting influences that could have destroyed the community. The impact of the action was murder. And do we really want to believe that the only means to justice and safety is violence? 

I believe that discord–contradiction–might actually be the highest Jewish value. The broken vav of parshat Pinchas is a microcosm of the highest value of the Jewish tradition. The broken vav, according to our tradition, is both right and wrong. Pinchas’s actions, according to our tradition, were both right and wrong. And while our western, modern systems are trained to believe that right and wrong cannot co-exist–that something is either right or wrong–we have the Jewish tradition to come along and tell us that things simply aren’t that simple. An action can be both right and wrong. Most actions, I would claim, are both a little bit right, and a little bit wrong. And to surrender to that web of complexity and embrace the contradiction is what it means to be human. Is what it means to be seekers of tikkun olam.

So, this week, I invite you to turn toward the brokenness. Embrace the contradiction. Locate yourself in that severed space between the upper and lower parts of the vav. For I believe it is there that we find שלמות – shleimut – wholeness, and peace.

Sat, July 20 2024 14 Tammuz 5784