The hidden lesson of a corrupted Vav

Rabbi Carnie Shalom Rose holds the Rabbi Bernard Lipnick Senior Rabbinic Chair of Congregation B’nai Amoona in St. Louis and is a member of the St. Louis Rabbinical Association, which coordinates the weekly d’var Torah for the Jewish Light. 

By Rabbi Carnie Shalom Rose

Recently, I was invited to facilitate a discussion for an interfaith group of younger seminarians. The organizer, a delightful, gregarious and deeply spiritual professor of Christian theology, wanted me to expose his students to the “Jewish Approach to Parshanut HaMikra, Biblical Exegesis.”

“You know,” he said, “Do that ‘Jewish Thing’ with them. Choose a section from the Five Books and show them — in your unique Jewish fashion — that the Torah is an iceberg; there is far more beneath the surface than there is above. And, by the way, they really are a great group. They relish the opportunity to discuss, debate and argue. You’ll love them — and they’ll love you!” 

Even without much thought, I immediately knew that the text I wanted to explore with these inquisitive budding religious leaders was the one we will be reading this coming Shabbat in shuls the world-over, Parashat Pinchas. After all, if there ever was a section of the Torah that warranted close reading, careful consideration and creative elucidating Rabbinic commentary it is this selection from the fourth book of the Bible, Sefer Bamidbar (Numbers). In fact, the more I contemplated the contents of this Parashah, the more convinced I became that — with its riveting narrative and challenging moral conundrums — Sidrat Pinchas would not only be a great storyline for a Hollywood motion picture or Broadway show, but it also raises issues that our contemporary world is/needs to be struggling with. 

And so we began to read and explore the text…


Pinchas, the protagonist of our Torah portion, enraged and incensed by the licentiousness and depravity of the ancient Israelites, rails against the Znute (the cultic sexuality) of the people, and in a display of unbridled passionate objection to their disgusting behavior, thrusts a spear through the genitals of the two most prominent fornicators. Yet the most surprising and disquieting element of the tale is that Pinchas’ outrage and his act of violence and aggressivity is rewarded with an astonishing prize — “Britee Shalom, My/God’s eternal covenant of peace”. 

It goes without saying that the sensitive and astute students in the class had a field day with this section of the Torah. Their respectful yet principled conversations were wonderful and their insights were beyond wise and discerning. So much so, that there was no time for me to actually share any of my own thoughts or reactions to the text. Yet, just as our time was about to abate, one of the students leaped (literally!) out of her seat and blurted out: “Rabbi — aren’t you going to give us your take on this sordid tale? Don’t leave us hanging? How does a learned Jew deal with this repugnant account?”

Sheepishly, I asked the students to once again carefully scan the photocopied sections of the Hebrew Bible that I had distributed at the beginning of our time together. Not all of the seminarians read Hebrew, so I carefully walked around the room and pointed out to each of them the word “Shalom” as it appears in Numbers 25:12. 

“If you look very closely, the third letter, the letter Vav is written, in incomplete or corrupted fashion. To the Rabbinic eye, this is not some kind of typographical error or misprint. This, dear friends, is nothing less than Divinity expressing Itself through the recorded words of the Torah, and alludes to a truth that resides deeper than the surface of the mind. 

The broken, corrupted and incomplete letter Vav in the word Shalom in this context, attunes us to the fact that though there may be times when violence is the only way to extricate ourselves from unfortunate circumstances and may even lead us incrementally toward our goal of peace, that kind of Shalom is not ultimate peace, not true peace, not the highest expression of the real peace we Jews work, aspire and pray for. 

As Jews, the peace we desire is not partial nor incomplete. It is whole and uninterrupted. It is a Shalom that casts its luminous and glorious blessing on Kol Yoshvei Tevel — on all those who inhabit God’s earth. And this is a deep and abiding truth, and one that is embedded and encoded into the syntax, the very DNA, of our sacred scripture. This is how an educated Jew reads Parashat Pinchas!” 

Ashreinu! Mah Tov Chelkenu! U’Mah Naim Goralenu! Happy are we! How goodly is our portion, how pleasant is our lot and how beautiful our heritage!

May we be sensitive, wise and astute enough to apprehend these deeper truths and then bring them to bear on the way we live our lives on a daily basis! Amen!