Question: what is the letter that appears most often in the Torah? That’s easy enough. Just look on any column in the Torah and you will see the letter vav in every line. In fact, many Torah scrolls are what is called “vav” Torahs—where every column begins with the letter vav. Hundreds of verses in the Torah begin with a vav. What does vav mean? Usually it means “and;” however, sometimes it can mean “but,” or “although,” or even—as in our Torah reading—a “hook.” Vav is the letter of connection.
Let me share with you 2 ancient legends about the letter vav. The 1st is the legend of the “Mark of Cain.” Remember, in the beginning of the Torah, Adam and Eve have 2 children —Cain who kills Abel. What was Cain’s punishment? Gd does not execute Cain, even though, elsewhere in the Torah, we see that the punishment for murder is death. Perhaps because this was the very 1st murder in history, Cain didn’t realize his blow would kill his brother and so Gd was merciful and sentenced him to wander from place to place.
Rabbi Meir Shapiro—the originator of Daf Yomi, the daily study of Talmud program—comments that what really upset Gd was not so much the murder. The murder can be explained—he didn’t know what he was doing, he was emotionally upset, whatever. What really offended Gd was Cain’s answer when Gd confronted him. Gd asks, Ey Chevel achica (Where is Abel, your brother)? And Cain answers with terrible chutzpa, “How should I know? Hashomer achi anochi (Am I my brother’s keeper)?” (Gen. 4:9)
And for this, Gd sentenced him to permanent exile. Gd made him a wanderer. Cain feared for his life so Gd put a sign upon his forehead indicating, in the words of the Torah (Gen. 4:15), that “whoever kills Cain…will be punished.” And what was that sign? Some of the commentators note that the word for “sign”—ot—has another meaning. It also means “letter.” This led the commentaries to suggest that the sign was a letter. So which letter was it? One opinion (Eliyahu Ki Tov) was that it was the letter hey—the 1st letter of Hevel or Able. So Cain was to spend the rest of his life wearing the name of his brother that he killed on his forehead.
Another opinion (Targum Yonatan) says it was a letter of Gd’s yud-hey-vav-hey holy Name. Which one? According to the Tikuney Zohar it was letter vav—the letter of connection. With only Adam, Eve and Cain remaining, the world was at a crossroads. Each one could easily think that each person is his/her own world and should watch out for him/herself. So Gd put the letter vav—the letter of connection—from His name onto Cain to teach him that we are our brother’s keeper. We have to care for others besides ourselves. We are all interconnected.
That’s the 1st legend about the letter vav—that it was the Mark of Cain, the mark he bore to teach us that we’re all connected to and responsible for each other.
Here’s the 2nd legend: As this week’s Torah portion opens, Moses gives the Jewish people an accounting of the expenses involved in the building of the Mishkan. But why? Moses got Egypt to let them out of slavery with the 10 plagues. He helped part the waters of the Red Sea to escape the Egyptians in hot pursuit. He took them to Mt. Sinai where Gd gave them the Torah and 10 Commandments largely through him. Didn’t the people trust Moses? Yes, but when it comes to community funds, everything must be super above board. And you know what? The Midrash (Yalkut Shimoni) tells us that much to everyone’s surprise, Moses’ accounting came up 1,775 shekels short! At current valuation, this would be $974,026.96, almost a million dollars—not small change!
Then someone shouts out: “Thief!” The crowd gets restless. They’re ready to lynch Moses for embezzlement. Moses feverishly looks over the entire Mishkan—pointing to every item and frantically looking for something that he has forgotten to include in the total. And just then—the legend has it—the vavim, the hooks that connect the curtains of the Mishkan to each other, light up and he realized that he didn’t include them because he couldn’t see them—they were hidden behind the curtains. So he points to them, and the people are appeased. Crisis averted!
What does this Midrash teach us? It teaches that when you deal with public funds, you have to be careful to account for every penny. People are entitled to know what their money goes for. If even Moses had to give a full and accurate accounting, then surely every other person who collects funds from the public has to do so.
This struck me as I read an article on health care. Everyone knows the costs of health care keeps going up. People live longer. New medical devices cost more. We understand. What’s upsetting is the lack of transparency and accountability. Have you gone to the hospital for a couple of days, and got bill of 4 or even 5 figures? The bill is written in technical, medical jargon that we can’t understand. If we get someone to translate it for us, the article points out that the hospital may have charged us $75 for an aspirin and an additional $100 for the nurse to delivered it, and an additional $75 for the paper cup in which the aspirin was brought to our bed! There needs to be proper accounting for collecting funds from the public as well as in all aspects of our lives.
There is an even deeper lesson of the vav, and that is the importance of being connected. The vavim were the hooks that joined the curtains of the Mishkan to each other. Without them, it could not stand. The lesson for us is that there can be no Jewish people, there can be no Jewish life, unless we Jews are connected. You can’t be a Jew by yourself. In joy and in sorrow, you need the presence and the support of other Jews. And they need you.
The power of vav was embedded into the very structure of creation. Adam and Eve were created on yom vav—the 6th day of creation—since vav is the 6th letter. But yom vav also means, “the day of the vav, the day of ‘connectedness’.” This is what it means to be fully human. A human being is one who is connected with and involved with the lives of others. Judaism doesn’t value the hermit. In Jewish tradition, no one can be fully human until and unless he/she is connected to others.
This explains why Jews are so involved in helping others that have little or no connection to them. Everyone knows Jews are among the world’s biggest givers to needy causes. Israeli rescue workers were asked again and again in Brazil, Italy, Nepal, Haiti, New Orleans, India, Japan, etc., “Why are you in here?” After every disaster Israel shows the entire world what the essence of our faith boils down to—connecting to our fellow human beings, showing mercy and kindness to all when you feel the pain and suffering of others.
When there was starvation in Africa, the rest of the world did not get involved—not even other African states felt an obligation to help. But Israel reached out to the Ethiopian Jews and brought them home. There had been no connection between the rest of the Jewish people and the Ethiopian Jews for thousands of years, and yet, every Jew in the world somehow felt, instinctively, connected.
Were these people really even Jews? There was no time to think about it. We felt a vav, a link, a hook to them, and went into action to reach them. It was the only time in the history of the world when blacks were taken out of Africa from slavery to freedom and not the other way around! It was the same for the Jews of Bosnia/Herzegovina in the 90’s and the 34 remaining Jews of Iraq.
The Shulchan Aruch (Rema Yorah Deah 373) Code of Jewish Law records that one way to beautify the writing of a Torah is to write it in such a fashion that every column would start with the letter vav. Why? because to be a Torah Jew means to be connected to every Jew and to every human being. To be a Jew means to live with vavim—with hooks that connect us. Amen!