A personal letter about just one letter, out of Corona times…

One small letter - Vav

Perhaps this is one of the most important yet least appropriate letters for me to be writing.

Nevertheless, I am penning a few simple, yet important thoughts for you to consider. I feel compelled to do so against the backdrop of a deafening silence that is by now drowned out by the cacophony of pained voices, young and old who are longing and begging for some deeper response and call to action as we journey together through the greatest collective trauma of recent times. It seems almost cruel to simply amble down this shared road with the most prevalent messages ranging from “business as usual” to yearnings for “back to normal” reverberating across communities worldwide without some expression of a Jewish response to these events. I claim no prophetic insight, authority nor definitive understanding. However, I do finally feel a moral imperative to respond. Perhaps these sentiments will minimally stimulate some discussion between us. Please accept these as they are intended. They come from a simple Jew attempting to do his duty, simply to “wake up and smell the coffee!”

I write these words to all types of Jews everywhere, as this is a road we travel together. That consideration is itself, I believe, a crucial part of the shared message, painstakingly relevant as it is today. This is intended to be just that, rather than a sermon or academic discourse.

The last Jewish festival we celebrated in any fashion together, was Purim 2020. Little did we know what was unfolding. We stand today 30 days prior to Purim just one year later. A different world. Jewish tradition suggests “shloshim yom lifnei hachag…”, 30 days before each festival we prepare by brushing up our knowledge and thereby our understanding of the coming days. Perhaps we can take just a few minutes to do so together, now?

Let’s recall the Purim story. The wicked viceroy Haman approaches the powerful King Achashveirosh with an oft-repeated plan to get rid of the Jews. All too familiar to us, the perceived threat posed by the Jews is one big deception; the description however, rings resoundingly true. Haman describes the Jews as “One People- scattered and divided amongst the nations” followed by a plan to annihilate the entire race! Familiar? One People, yet scattered and divided. “AM ECHAD-MEFOZAR UMEFORAD” in the words of the Megilla. The Jews are of echad – oneness, unity, togetherness- the ultimate aspiration of our People. Echad-The closing word of every prayer, the last words on the lips of our ancestors, whoever they were, whenever their time came, whatever the circumstance that befell them. And yet, then as now, we remain starkly divided- in place, in thought, in poise, in word and in action.

When we as Jews are divided, our enemies invariably find a space by which to enter the arena. The unfolding scenario is seldom a happy one.

The pivotal moment in the Purim story occurs when Esther realizes that circumstance stares her in the face. The call to action is deafening. Despite her position of comfort ensconsed comfortably in the palace, Esther hears the message of the time; Esther heeds the beckoning, the call of history; Esther takes decisive action. Her pivotal words resound throughout Jewish history. She summons Mordechai with the proclamation “Lech knoss et kol hayehudim- vetzumu allay!” Go gather all the Jews together and fast for me”. The resultant unity of the Jewish People becomes the turning point and key to the triumph of the Purim story and the focus of our celebration of the festival of Purim ever since. We get together; we take care of the needy; we send foodstuffs to our neighbours. That is the drive towards repair of the malaise of division and separation that, we recall, pre-empted Haman’s anti-Semitic design against the Jews.

When cataclysmic events occur in our individual and collective lives, do we just attempt to carry on with business as usual, or do we attempt to learn, to grow, to change? When the trauma continues; when the knocking on the door simply gets louder, and louder, is our response to repeatedly hit the snooze button day after day, week after week, month after month? I humbly suggest not! (please see Shir HaShirim, Song of Songs- Chap. 2;5-6 for the palpably tragic image of lost opportunity for the Jewish People).

Each of us has experienced greater isolation than ever before. We have become disconnected one from another. We have been alone at home. Many of us have been quarantined with “significant other” and organic family. To varying degrees, we have been locked out of synagogue and workplace, community and society. I think it fair to say we have more mirrors at home than in each of those places. Lets possibly pause by one of them today for a few moments of deeper contemplation.

Who has not considered the frailty of life during this time? What would I leave behind if I was wheeled in, struggling for each breath to the ICU? What in life shall I miss and have I missed? What did I still have to do? Yet have we considered deeply and honestly enough the most important of these questions? What is my life about? What is truly important on this necessarily finite journey? Each of us is home alone. Nowhere to run. Are we paying attention, or do we continually opt to escape into another distraction that lays today ever ready in the palm of our hand? What am I here to do? How connected am I with myself? Have I been so distracted by the treadmill and the pace of modern day life that I have become disconnected with myself, my God, my partner, my children? The list goes on for each of us. Here’s the crucial point -Perhaps we all felt so connected by the wonders of the world wide web, and indeed the “likes” of virtual friendship (represented by a simple thumbs up on an artificial computer screen) that we ignored what true connection, true friendship, genuine relationship is all about?

Perhaps we are being offered an opportunity to STOP running from place to place, flicking from screen to screen, ignoring the most important connections of all in our flight? Perhaps when locked out of synagogues we would reflect on the words of our prophets of yesteryear reminding us that God does not need habitual lipservice. Had our relationships- with self, Creator, husband, wife, children, parents, friends, community and society become staid, habitual liaisons layered with superficiality and veneer, lacking in sincerity, authenticity and passion? I say “perhaps” because we have no prophecy today nor are we blessed with Godly insight. However, to me the DISCONNECT in order to CONNECT is a clear lesson we could all do well to hear and act upon at this time.

Have you ever noticed an incredible yet oft overlooked feature of the opening sentences of the Torah? EVERY SINGLE VERSE of CREATION BEGINS WITH THE SAME LETTER! A “Vav”. Yes, check it out yourself now. It’s astounding if you haven’t noticed it before. Every single verse of the Torah (after the first one, but that’s for another time!), begins with the Hebrew letter Vav. This pattern follows through all the narrative of creation until Shabbat which concludes “asher bara Elokim la’assot”- which God created- to do! What is meant by those closing words “…created- to do”!? Correct! For you and I together, TO DO! To do what? The answer stares us in the face (as so often they do!) TO CONNECT ALL! That’s precisely what the letter Vav does. The message is so clear, yet so tragically overlooked. The ultimate mission of mankind- to unite all.The letter VAV in the Torah is translated as “and”. The letter Vav is a CONNECTOR. In Hebrew it is referred to as the “vav haCHIBUR” the vav consecutive, or at times the “vav haHIPUCH” the vav conversive. The simple message? The Creator is One; He created a multifaceted world of infinite diversity. Our function? To choose to reconnect all those disparate parts together. Horizontal integration via the Vav Hachibur (indeed, the same root as chaver- a friend- true friendship is formed by genuine connection, not a superficial “like” represented by a thumbs up somewhere out there in the ether) Vertical connection by the Vav Hahipuch- learning from the past, bringing its lessons with us to the present and working to build a vibrant collective future.

Simple!? I guess not, otherwise we would have achieved it long ago. As Jews we are all aware of the imperative to nurture unity, achduss, achdut (take your pick) as a prerequisite to fulfilling our purpose in the world. However, the very nature of the human condition involves both the perennial struggle of the ego as well as dwelling on the material, superficial and transient. As Haman described us. We live in a world of separation. Of “pizur” and “pirud”. The Hebrew word PIRUD means separation. Today we are separated from one another. Tragically so many of our opportunities to connect, even as we speak, are so painfully divisive. We are a divided Nation inhabiting a confused and fragmented world. Let’s not merely divert the issue by pointing accusatory fingers at politicians and leadership. Some messages today I suggest are loud and clear. They are there for you and I, to embrace or to ignore.

Our achievements span the millennia and despite all, are toweringly monumental, in every sphere of activity. We are living through tumultuous times, the likes of which most of us have never experienced in our lifetime. Today, 30 days before the festival of Purim, one year on, there is a thundering banging on the front door of each and every one of us.  I humbly offer as food for thought, discussion and hopefully action- there is one area we have repeatedly fallen short of. That of genuine CHIBUR- authentic, sincere, humble CONNECTION- with self, with One, with other, with all. Let’s be the generation we promised we would be. We’ll tell our grandchildren the story. Yes, we remember; we were there; we weren’t bystanders. We paid attention. We did something.

May we have a happy Purim, together, followed by a wonderful story to relate for many many seder nights to come!

In friendship,

Naftali

About the Author
Rabbi Naftali Schiff is the Founder and CEO of Jewish Futures, a diverse family of non-profit educational organisations each addressing a specific need and niche. These include JRoots, GIFT, Aish UK, Chazak, Chazon, Shelanu, Ta’am, Time4Torah, Legacy Live, Aleinu, and the Forum for Jewish Leadership. Jewish Futures is committed to creating and implementing far reaching solutions that will realise the vision of a brighter Jewish future. Naftali studied Economics and International Relations at the London School of Economics, received Rabbinic ordination from the Israel and Jerusalem Rabbinate and Diploma of Education from Israel Ministry of Education. He served in the IDF Givati Infantry unit and is a founding board member of Loving World and a number of philanthropic foundations.
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