Reflections from Jerusalem

Friday, July 11, 2014

By Rabbi Shoshanah Conover

Yesterday afternoon, some Hartman Rabbinic Leadership Initiative colleagues and I decided to take full advantage of being in Jerusalem. We went to the Cardo in the Old City (the main street of Jerusalem nearly 1,500 years ago) to visit with a sofer (scribe) who has had the honor of writing eight Sifrei Torah (Torah scrolls). As we came upon the row of Roman pillars in the Cardo where only three pillars stood complete, others broken at different points, my oldest son Eli (6 years old) asked: “Who cut these down?”  Jerusalem is a city of interrupted traumas, whole in its brokenness.

The sofer taught the children how to write the first letter of the Torah: the bet.  As the children immersed themselves in the writing of Torah, I couldn’t help asking the sofer about his experience with writing one letter from this week’s Torah portion: the broken vav. “When writing a torah scroll, does writing the broken vav bring you some emotional feeling?”

For those of you unfamiliar with the actual text of this week’s Torah portion Pinchas, it has a scribal anomaly– the vav in the phrase “Brit Shalom” (“covenant of peace”) is broken—the top does not connect with the bottom. The vav itself is interrupted—whole in its brokenness. In fact, in some ways we feel like we have entered the story of Pinchas in that interrupted space. The action of his story occurs in the previous portion when he slays a son of Israel and a Midianite harlot in their act of transgression, thereby saving the rest of the Israelites from a Divine plague. This week, we are thrown into the middle of that story– just after the climax but before the resolution. (Who am I kidding? There is no resolution. Like Israel, the Torah lives with a series of unresolved moments like an emotional tel [see Wednesday’s reflection].) The story continues at the beginning of this week’s Torah portion.  In verse 12 of Numbers 25 we read God’s message to Pinchas:

Hin’ni, noten lo et briti shalom.

H’nini, I give you my covenant of peace.”

The vav in the word “shalom” is broken. Why?

Some midrash say that it’s because after such a violent act the peace that comes is imperfect and a bit broken. Yet, the sofer offered a midrash of his own—or, gave me implicit permission to make midrash from his words.

He said that he did get an emotion when writing the broken vav—he felt excitement. It broke up the regular pattern of transcribing the scroll. This was a welcome disruption—it woke him up, called him to attention because it required great focus. The broken vav still has to be a perfect vav. While the top might look a lot like a yud, it cannot be a perfect yud or else it cannot be part of the vav. Thus, the top half of the vav looks rather like a yud reaching down to the bottom part of the vav, and the bottom part of the vav appears to be reaching up. That is the key to transcribing the proper broken vav.

Beautiful– interrupted but whole.

How? By reaching– one to the other, yet with a bit of space between.

This time has called us to attention as Jews. We are living with Israel and with Israelis on red alert. Diaspora and Israeli Jews, reaching out to one another.

And, yet, for me it goes still deeper.

After our children finished writing on parchment, ready to run out to the Kotel before dinner, once again we heard the sirens. We huddled together as we listened:

Boom…

Boom…

Boom…

Boom…

In the 10 minutes following the hits, we sat in a circle playing a familiar game from Jewish camps—hands on top of hands, clapping one another’s hands as we tried to avoid getting out: echad, shtayim, shalosh, arbah… (Such a normal thing to do with a group of children…)

Life is a series of interrupted traumas. We ourselves are emotional tels.

Where do we find shleimut (wholeness) amidst our frailty, our brokenness? Where do I find greater wholeness? I find it in the act of reaching out and up to the Divine who surrounds me and holds me during these series of traumas that compose the hours of my life.

And all the while, my God—whom I call by a name that begins with a yud— reaches for me. The sacredness of my life breathes in the space that exists between the reaching in this broken vav that is life.

Shabbat shalom.