The lesson of the vav: Were defined by our connections to others


Exodus 35:1-40:38

I Kings 7:51-8:21

What is the letter that appears most often in the Torah? The letter vav is in almost every sentence. Hundreds and hundreds of verses in the Torah begin with the letter Vav. What does vav mean? Many of us learned early on in our Hebrew education that vav means “and.” And that is usually the right translation.

There are two ancient legends about the vav. The first concerns the Mark of Cain. Early on, in Genesis, there is the story of the first murder, the first fratricide. For reasons that are not completely clear, Cain kills his brother, Abel.

God does not execute Cain, even though elsewhere in the Torah the punishment for murder is murder. Perhaps because this was the very first murder in our recorded human history, God was kind and only sentenced Cain to permanent exile. But God also decreed that there shall be a mark upon the forehead of Cain, so that everyone who sees him will know what he did.

I learned this from Rabbi Jack Riemer, who learned it from Rabbi Meir Shapiro, a great scholar of Eastern European Jewry. Rabbi Shapiro says that the real thing that upset God was not so much the murder. What really offended God was Cain’s answer when God confronted him. God says to him: Where is Abel, your brother? And Cain answers: How should I know? “Am I my brother’s keeper?”

For this, God sentenced him to permanent exile. And God put a mark upon his forehead. And what was that mark? It was the letter vav. You will be sentenced to wear the letter vav on your forehead for the rest of your days so that you and all those who see you will realize and know that you are connected to others. You are your brother’s keeper. And so is every other human being.

The second legend comes from this week’s Torah portion, when Moses gives the Israelites a financial accounting of the expenses that were involved in the building of the Tabernacle. He comes up 1,775 shekels short. And someone in the congregation either has a pocket adding machine or a very good mind for math, and shouts out: Thief!

The crowd gets restless. They are ready to believe that Moses has embezzled funds that belong to the Tabernacle. Moses feverishly goes over the entire structure of the construction, frantically looking for something that he has forgotten to include. And just then, the vavim (the plural of vav), the hooks that connect the curtains of the Mishkan to each other, light up and he realized that he has somehow forgotten to include their cost in the total. Crisis averted.

What does this midrash teach us? First, when you deal with public funds, you have to be careful and be able to account for every penny. And second, it teaches us the indispensability of connectedness in every holy venture. The vavim were the hooks that joined the curtains of the Tabernacle to each other. And perhaps the lesson for us is that there can be no Jewish people, there can be no Jewish life, unless we are connected to each other. You cannot be a Jew by yourself. In joy and in sorrow, you need the presence and the support of other Jews. And they need you.

Rabbi Schachter says that Adam was created on “Yom Vav,” which means, not only the sixth day, but literally “the day of the vav,” the day of the “and.” A human being is one who is connected with and involved with the lives of other people.

From this we are reminded that Judaism is not an I-Thou religion; ours is a We-Thou religion. To be a Jew means to be connected horizontally and vertically to every other Jew in the world. And to be a Jew means to be a descendant of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob and Leah and Rachel. To be a Jew means to live with vavim — hooks that connect us to all other Jews, wherever they may be.

Rabbi Larry Raphael
is the senior rabbi of Congregation Sherith Israel in San Francisco.