This week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim, begins:“VeElah Hamishpatim Asher Tasim Leefnayhem,” “And these are the laws that you [Moses] will set before them.” In this straightforward verse Moses is informed of his responsibility to teach the Children of Israel how to organize their community around the God’s law.
Yet taking another look at the verse, we notice an extraneous letter, namely the very first one, the vav, which we translate as “And.”
Why would the Torah begin this portion with the word “And?” Don’t we learn in grade school that we are not supposed to begin a sentence with a conjunction?
In the spirit of “School House Rock,” Rashi seeks to understand the function of this conjunction. He explains that this seemly superfluous vav connects these laws to what immediately precedes them, namely the Ten Commandments revealed at Sinai. In his eyes, this extra vav serves as the lynchpin for grounding our faith not only in ritual observance and spiritual practice, but also in our civil interactions with one another. Thus, civil law and is imbued with sanctity because it, too, is commanded by Hashem.
The Midrash asserts that every single letter – along with the crowns and dots around them – in the Torah has a sacred purpose sometimes suggested by their very names. The literal translation of the word “vav” is hook. Living up to its name, the “vav” is the quintessential connector.
Underscoring the importance of connection as a core Jewish value, we, once again, celebrate Jewish Disability Awareness Acceptance and Inclusion Month (JDAIM) during February. JDAIM represents our communal effort to actualize the prophet Isaiah’s aspiration that “God’s house shall be a place for all people.” Elevating our communities into hubs of connection and shared purpose involves more than just being a place “where everyone knows your name.” True inclusion takes place when difference is not just accepted, but celebrated.
This week on Shabbat Shekalim, we recall how the Jewish people would make a half shekel contribution to the Temple each year. The donation was used not only to help keep up the Temple, but also to count the people. Everyone gave the same amount, so the leaders would count the coins to calculate the census.
Of all of the amounts, why a half shekel? One interpretation is that an individual standing alone is not complete. With this in mind, we only become whole when we are connected to family, friends, and community.
Metaphorically speaking, we are all half shekels waiting to be connected to one another. Connection – even over Zoom – makes life more meaningful. Further, a sense of shared purpose and destiny serves as a link to those who have come before us and to those who will follow us one day. The power of connecting is demonstrated in how we greet others as well as by taking the time to hear their story and affirm the God-given potential residing in each of us.
Thousands of years after Isaiah, the locus of Jewish connection is the synagogue. It is interesting to note that the Hebrew word for synagogue is not Beit Tefilah, a house of prayer, but rather Beit Knesset, a house of gathering. The label of our communal space broadcasts our belief that we become more than the sum of our parts when we combine our intentions towards Hashem and harness our efforts for the sake of one another.
When we experience this kind of connection, we can truly appreciate the deeper message of the vav that launches this week’s Torah portion. This single letter not just connects one chapter to another, but also invites us to link our individual and communal stories together for all time.