A single letter reveals profound concepts

By Rabbi Seth D Gordon

A Jesuit scholar is cloistered deep in the Vatican archives. He is poring over the ancient texts of his faith. Suddenly, in distress, even agony, he clasps his hands to his head and lets out an anguished shriek: “Celebrate!  It says, ‘celebrate!’”

The humor (OK, take a minute to solve the mystery) reflects the far-reaching consequences of the difference a single letter (in this case, two) can make.  And so it is with the very first letter of this week’s parashah, the “vav.”  

In Hebrew, the “vav” is often attached to the beginning of a word, a prefix, and it is usually conjunctive, meaning “and.”  The opening pasuk (verse) of Parshat Mishpatim is translated: “And these are the laws (mishpatim) that you shall set before them.” Moses is hereby instructed to teach Israel law:  Unlike any parashah so far, Parshat Mishpatim is almost entirely a code of laws. 

Back to the “vav.”  Why “And these are the laws”? Why not simply, “These are the laws …”? One explanation comes from our tradition, from rabbinic commentary; another is a fresh infusion by modern scholars. Each contains a vital lesson.


The Mechilta of Rabbi Ishmael (1st century BCE) explains that the “vav” connects the laws of “Mishpatim” with the Decalogue of last week’s parashah.  The Torah regards the many dozens of laws from this week’s parashah with no less authority than it does the “Ten Dibrot.”  This is serious business.  In various ages the so-called “Ten Commandments” (rabbinically, there are 13 commandments, which is why “Decalogue,” “Ten Sayings” or “Dibrot” are preferred) have enjoyed a special, exalted status. Indeed, there was a time when the Decalogue was part of our morning services, but was dropped because people began to assign greater seriousness and authority to them than to the other laws in the Torah. In that spirit, RaMBaM (Maimonides) concludes that we should not rise for the Decalogue when they are read as part of our Torah reading; to do so would imply that they are more important than the other laws.  The conjunctive “vav” has anticipated this notion.

Modern scholarship, without challenging traditional theology, notes that the first laws in Mishpatim are about slavery.  Other law codes that pre-dated Moses included rules about slavery, but none made them their first laws.  Why did the Torah place the laws of slavery first?  Nahum Sarna writes:  “Having recently experienced liberation from bondage, the Israelite is enjoined to be especially sensitive to the condition of the slave.”  Speaking to the link between law and b’rit (covenant), Sarna wrote that the narrative “imparts to the covenant its meaning and significance; the covenant would be devalued were a link between them to be severed.”  

In the modern era there have been tendencies to minimize law and emphasize narrative, and counter-tendencies to emphasize law and minimize narrative.  The “vav” of Mishpatim reveals that law and narrative are intimately related; each informs the other.  Our laws emerge from our history and are shaped by our experiences, and in turn our laws, especially if we live them, shape our history, as they did in the past, as they will do in the future.  

Shabbat Shalom.

Rabbi Seth D Gordon serves Traditional Congregation and is a member of the St. Louis Rabbinical Association.