Is it possible to heal after being broken? Can trust be repaired after it has been betrayed?

Once a community has experienced trauma, can the dispersed individuals reunify?

The Ot Meshunah, atypical letter, that opens this week’s sedra (Torah portion) asks these questions and more. It is the Vav Ketiyah – the Cut Vav.

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This letter is unique in scripture. Normally, if any one of the letters of the TaNaCh (Hebrew Bible) are imperfect or broken in any way they are rendered unkosher, making the entire Torah scroll prohibited for use by the community.

This Vav Ketiyah is the exception.

Not only is the Vav Ketiyah kosher, the Masorah (tradition) of this broken letter is as ancient as the written Torah itself.

Moreover, this letter introduces a paradox. The Cut Vav is the heart of the word “Shalom”, from the root Sh.L.M, meaning peace, wholeness, completion. How can a word meaning “wholeness and peace” possibly contain a broken letter within it, kosher or not?

The context of this letter only deepens the question.

Last week, we read the harrowing episode of the Moabite women infiltrating the Israelite camp (at the behest of King Balak) and enticing the Jewish men to lewdness and worship of the Moabite god figurines. The result was that a terrible plague broke out. A prince of Israel and princess of Moab went so far as to parade their amorous encounter before the Tent of Meeting – before the figure of Moshe himself, who stood paralyzed. His grand-nephew Pinchas, son of Elazar the Cohen, was fired by righteous zealotry, took up his lance and made an end of the lovers in one throw. The nation of Israel and the Moabites alike were shocked. The plague ceased.

This week, after the dust settled, the story resumes with G!d promising Pinchas a “Brit Shalom”, Covenant of Peace, as a result of his actions which brought about order. Our sedra bearing his name, Pinchas, marches on to discuss a nation-wide census, inheritance law, the appointment of Yehoshua ben Nun in place of the aging Moshe, holidays and sacrifices galore…but there is something amiss. The broken Vav does not sit silently. It questions.

Asks the Vav

“How can that which has been broken be made whole? Can redemption be earned after transgression? Can social order be restored after chaos, and peace to the heart of humankind after warfare, murder, and the upending of the rule of law?”

Because while it is true that Pinchas restored social order, he did so by executing the guilty parties without trial, judge or jury. He took the law into his own hands and acted without the approval of Moshe, the Supreme Court Justice, and without the blessing of G!d. Perhaps, you might say, drastic times call for drastic measures.

But, teaches our Vav Ketiyah, any peace restored through violence is fractured.

That is the price of zealotry: The unease in the camp, despite the quietude.

But if you read closely, you will find that this week’s Torah portion is a masterclass in mending and social healing. Each and every segment that appears in Pinchas is there for a reason: to illuminate a different facet of the complex, murky, and often times painful process of overcoming trauma – as an individual, as a family, and as a nation.

The Letter of Connection

Before we go any further, we must acquaint ourselves with our leading letter.

Letter Vav

Vav is the 6th letter of the Aleph-Bet whose name literally means “Hook”. The image of the Vav is simple: a vertical line with a short curved head that mirrors its meaning. It is a pillar. A man standing upright. It is the letter used for the word “and” in the Hebrew language, linking disparate elements together.

Hundreds of Vavs, hooks, were used to link the pillars of the Tabernacle together. The widespread tradition of Torah scrolls is to plan each column of text so that the first letter on the first line of every column is the letter Vav – connecting the pillars of text together to create a whole scroll.

As Rabbi Ginsburgh writes in his fascinating book The Hebrew Letters, “The hook represents the power of connection and equilibrium between the symmetrical and asymmetrical states inherent in nature.”

How does the narrative of Pinchas heal this broken pillar of peace in the Brit Shalom?

Raise Up the Heads of Israel

Immediately after the episode of the Midianites, G!d tells Elazar to take a census of the Children of Israel. That English translation has nothing on the original Hebrew.

In Hebrew, “Take a census” literally translates to “Raise up the heads of the whole assembly of the Children of Israel”.

At first, counting people seems out of place immediately after a national trauma which nearly upended Moshe’s leadership. However, it is actually incredibly appropriate.

After Pinchas’s action, imagine what the group dynamic must have been: Confusion. Upset. Shamefacedness. The tribes must have wandered back to their own tents, and neighbor was secluded from neighbor. A nation which had just been compared to a Rock, a strong ox, a lion cub by the Seer Balaam is now a bit battered and broken…divided.

G!d asks for a census to be taken, not to number the people like cattle (as the Nazis yemach shemam later did with tattoos to insult and degrade the human spirit) but rather to lift up their heads. The goal of the census was to remind every member of Israel of their worth in themselves and in their place among their people.

E Pluribus Unum: From the many, one.

Sheep with no Shepherd

Two weeks ago, we read the narrative of Moshe striking the rock instead of speaking to it, to great and tragic outcome. G!d decreed that as a result of Moshe & Aaron’s words and actions, Moshe would not merit to lead Israel into the Promised Land.

This week, G!d tells Moshe that the time has come. G!d orders Moshe to ascend Mount Avarim (Avarim could mean “Mt. of Transgressions” or “Mt. of Crossings”) to die and be gathered to his people. The reason for this punishment is restated here:

יד  כַּאֲשֶׁר מְרִיתֶם פִּי בְּמִדְבַּר-צִן, בִּמְרִיבַת הָעֵדָה, לְהַקְדִּישֵׁנִי בַמַּיִם, לְעֵינֵיהֶם:  הֵם מֵי-מְרִיבַת קָדֵשׁ, מִדְבַּר-צִן.  {ס} 14 …’because ye rebelled against My commandment in the wilderness of Zin, in the strife of the congregation, to sanctify Me at the waters before their eyes.’–These are the waters of Meribath-kadesh in the wilderness of Zin.– {S} (Num. 27:14)

Moshe shattered something sacred when he shattered that rock with his staff. G!d says he ’embittered’ or ‘rebelled against’ the divine command and did not sanctify what was meant to be sanctified before the eyes of Israel, using the root word M.R. three times in one verse to echo the name of Miriam, Moshe’s sister, and the accusatory word Morim (rebels) that Moshe hurled at Israel before the rock, in one go.

But Moshe, true to his nature, argues with G!d. True to his nature, he argues not for himself, but on behalf of the Jewish People:

טו  וַיְדַבֵּר מֹשֶׁה, אֶל-ה’ לֵאמֹר. 15 And Moses spoke unto the LORD, saying:
טז  יִפְקֹד ה’, אֱלֹהֵי הָרוּחֹת לְכָל-בָּשָׂר, אִישׁ, עַל-הָעֵדָה. 16 ‘Let the LORD, the God of the spirits of all flesh, set a man over the congregation,
יז  אֲשֶׁר-יֵצֵא לִפְנֵיהֶם, וַאֲשֶׁר יָבֹא לִפְנֵיהֶם, וַאֲשֶׁר יוֹצִיאֵם, וַאֲשֶׁר יְבִיאֵם; וְלֹא תִהְיֶה, עֲדַת ה’, כַּצֹּאן, אֲשֶׁר אֵין-לָהֶם רֹעֶה. 17 who may go out before them, and who may come in before them, and who may lead them out, and who may bring them in; that the congregation of the LORD be not as sheep which have no shepherd.’
יח  וַיֹּאמֶר ה’ אֶל-מֹשֶׁה, קַח-לְךָ אֶת-יְהוֹשֻׁעַ בִּן-נוּן–אִישׁ, אֲשֶׁר-רוּחַ בּוֹ; וְסָמַכְתָּ אֶת-יָדְךָ, עָלָיו. 18 And the LORD said unto Moses: ‘Take thee Joshua the son of Nun, a man in whom is spirit, and lay thy hand upon him;
יט  וְהַעֲמַדְתָּ אֹתוֹ, לִפְנֵי אֶלְעָזָר הַכֹּהֵן, וְלִפְנֵי, כָּל-הָעֵדָה; וְצִוִּיתָה אֹתוֹ, לְעֵינֵיהֶם. 19 and set him before Eleazar the priest, and before all the congregation; and give him a charge in their sight.

(Num. 27:15-19)

Moshe’s goal, even in the moments before his death, was the wellbeing of his people. He was truly a great leader. “Let not Israel be like sheep with no shepherd”, he argues. G!d immediately concurs and offers instruction to anoint Yehoshua ben Nun as leader of the nation in Moshe’s place.

The strife that poured forth with the waters from the rock, and that has swirled around Moshe ever since, has finally been resolved with the appointment of a new leader. Knowing his charges will be led true, the first and greatest Shepherd of Israel can now go to his rest in peace.

Afflict Your Souls

We’ve explored how G!d unified a fractured people with a unifying act of census. And how the balm of a new positive and undisputed leadership was applied after several troubling episodes that tested the aged Shepherd of Israel.

How then do individuals find atonement after transgression? The soul of Pinchas, as the grandson of the first High Priest, was no doubt deeply troubled after he killed Zimri and Kozbi with his spear. We don’t read about it in the text itself, but I suspect he was no murderer at heart. Even if G!d consoled him with an everlasting Covenant of Peace that would extend to his children and grandchildren forever, what is the path to recovery after such a traumatic act?

The answer to an afflicted soul rent with remorse, says G!d, is an afflicted soul rent with repentance.

ז  וּבֶעָשׂוֹר לַחֹדֶשׁ הַשְּׁבִיעִי הַזֶּה, מִקְרָא-קֹדֶשׁ יִהְיֶה לָכֶם, וְעִנִּיתֶם, אֶת-נַפְשֹׁתֵיכֶם; כָּל-מְלָאכָה, לֹא תַעֲשׂוּ. 7 And on the tenth day of this seventh month ye shall have a holy convocation; and ye shall afflict your souls; ye shall do no manner of work;

G!d introduces the holiday of Yom Kippur to the nation of Israel as a sacred day to abstain from pleasures and needs of the body and instead focus on the needs of the soul. This holiday is set aside as a figure in ground for the year. In the cycle of the seasons, when this Day of Days approaches, Jews reach out to each other for forgiveness, reach into their own souls for self-acceptance, and finally reach to G!d for forgiveness of all transgressions from the previous year.

Yom Kippur, and the self-sacrifice it demands, provides an opportunity for a fresh start. When approached correctly, this day promises purification from guilt and the return of peace to one’s heart.

An Offering of Peace

The final sections of Pinchas are concerned with korbanot, sacrifices, of all kinds: offerings to be brought up on Shabbat, on Rosh Chodesh, on Pesach, Shavuot, and even daily. What, you might ask, is the connection between the korbanot, the theme of the broken Vav, and the restoration of peace?

Take a look at the final offering mentioned in this sedra:

לט  אֵלֶּה תַּעֲשׂוּ לַיהוָה, בְּמוֹעֲדֵיכֶם–לְבַד מִנִּדְרֵיכֶם וְנִדְבֹתֵיכֶם, לְעֹלֹתֵיכֶם וּלְמִנְחֹתֵיכֶם, וּלְנִסְכֵּיכֶם, וּלְשַׁלְמֵיכֶם. 39 These ye shall offer unto the LORD in your appointed seasons, beside your vows, and your freewill-offerings, whether they be your burnt-offerings, or your meal-offerings, or your drink-offerings, or your peace-offerings.

 

The Sedra is filled with a seemingly disconnected assortment of narratives but it is framed by a clear theme of Peace: the Broken Vav in Shalom at the beginning and the final sacrifice that is mentioned at the end: The Peace Offering.

All that is mentioned in Pinchas follows a narrative arc towards reconciliation.

Peace is possible even after fracture has occurred within a person, a relationship, or a nation. The healing process requires great attention, care, and follow-through, but as we have seen, it can be achieved.

And sometimes, that which has been broken can be even more meaningful for the breakage, because we can all learn valuable lessons thereby. This is the lesson of the Japanese art of Kintsugi, where broken vessels are made whole once again with glue and gold. The philosophy is to honor the broken pieces rather than attempt to hide the breakage. So teaches the art of the Broken Vav.

May we all be blessed with peace. May all that is broken be made whole.

Shabbat Shalem.


Dedication

This piece is dedicated to survivors of trauma who refuse to give up. Healing is possible with the right tools and the right support. Keep going. As the wise Rabbi Nachman said, “Nothing is as whole as a broken heart.”

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Kintsugi. The Japanese art of beautifying breakage.

Gratitude

To Rabbi Lieberman: This Shabbat, twenty-four seasons ago, you taught me the language of the letters. They have been speaking to me ever since. Thank you.