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Pinchas- Taking a Break from the "Ands."

07/06/2023 02:14:20 AM


This weeks’ Torah portion includes a broken letter- the only time that this is permitted in a Torah scroll. There is an ancient tradition (dating back to the Talmud) that the word Shalom (“peace”) must be written with a gap, a break, in the letter vav. This is surprising because normally, even a single broken letter, out of hundreds of thousands, would invalidate an entire scroll. Indeed, in one of our scrolls, an inexpert scribe had tried to “correct” the mistake, and the letter had to be rebroken. Let me share a few different takes on this unusual broken letter, and add one that is personally meaningful to me this week.

Last week, our portion concluded with the story of Pinchas, the grandson of Aaron. He saw an Israelite man and a Midianite woman defiling the tabernacle. He responded aggressively, by taking the law into his own hands and running the couple through with a spear. This week’s portion begins with God announcing that He will give Pinchas a covenant of shalom because he was zealous for God, but it is in this very word that the letter vav is broken.

One common interpretation of the broken vav is that the covenant of peace given to Pinchas was imperfect, because it was initiated with violence. Aggression may bring resolution, even justice, but not wholeness. Another, similar interpretation, is that perhaps the covenant God offered was specifically one of peace as an antidote to Pinchas’s zealousness.

Both of these interpretations reflect the ways in which some of our sages were troubled by the story of Pinchas. They see him as impulsive and prideful. However, Pinchas is clearly a hero in the bible. He goes on to have a lengthy and distinguished career, serving as the high priest during Joshua’s conquest of the land of Israel, and continuing his service as a trusted leader well into the days of some of the Judges.

As I read the story this year, I reflect on the fact that a break, even a small one, can have a profound effect.  Pinchas begins his career with unparalleled intensity. However, that intensity is often inconsistent with long term success. The letter vav literally means “and.” There is always an “and”- something else waiting next in the inbox. Sometimes the "ands" need to be broken off in order to create personal peace.  The break in the vav is an indication that peace can only come with a pause, with an opportunity for reflection. Those pauses for reflection were once assumed for many of us, including rabbis. My grandfather Rabbi Avram Mayer Heller was the rabbi of one of the largest congregations in Brooklyn for over 50 years. He worked 24/7 for much of the year, but had a country home where he spent time every summer. Had he not taken those opportunities to refresh, he would not have had the Pinchas-like longevity that enabled him to accomplish so much over two generations.

Today those pauses of truly uninterrupted time are not taken for granted. Many of us find ourselves answering work email or texts even when we are supposedly on vacation.  The sabbatical is one way to restore that uninterrupted time. I was supposed to take a three month sabbatical in 2020, but COVID took that off the table. I was able to take a few weeks in 2021 (granted, with one interruption), and as I write, I am taking another chunk of that time. Even though I know that my colleagues and the rest of our staff are more than capable, it is difficult for me to step away. There are important projects and initiatives underway. There are members of our community facing medical and personal challenges that do not obey a calendar. The broken vav this week reminds me that intensity alone is not sufficient to maintain effectiveness over a lifetime, that sometimes whatever is waiting next in line, no matter how urgent, has to be put on hold.

I am grateful to the congregation, and in particular my colleagues, for giving me the opportunity to take this break. Over the next six weeks, I will be making every effort to unplug. I'm currently at Ramah Darom, and later on, I'll have a chance to do some travel, and work on scholarly interests and projects and some strategic thinking. I look forward to returning in mid-August, hopefully with a bit of shalom. When I do come back, there will, no doubt, be a lengthy list of “ands," old and new.  At the very minimum, I will be ready to take on the High Holidays, but I also hope that this time will give me the opportunity to anticipate, and prepare for, the strategic challenges that will face our congregation in the coming years.

Tue, December 5 2023 22 Kislev 5784