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The connective power of a single letter

“And these are the laws that you [Moses] will set before them.” (Exodus 21:1) At first glance, the opening verse of this week’s Torah portion seems straightforward. God gives Moses laws to instruct the Children of Israel on how to organize their society built on the principles of freedom and justice.

Yet when we take a look in the Hebrew, we notice that the very first letter is extraneous. The verse begins with a vav, which translates as “And.”

We all know from grade school that we are not supposed to start a sentence with a conjunction. This extra letter invites us to wonder why the Torah would launch a vital section of laws with the word “And.” In the words of the cartoon classic, School House Rock, “Conjunction, what’s your function?”

The presence of this seemingly extraneous conjunction does not go unnoticed by our traditional commentators. Rashi asserts that the extra vav teaches us that these laws are connected to what immediately precedes them, namely the Revelation at Sinai. In his eyes, this extra vav is the lynchpin for grounding our faith not only in ritual observance and spiritual practice, but also in our civil interactions and social contract with one another. Civil law is sacred because it, too, is commanded by God.

Our Midrashic tradition asserts that every single letter in the Torah is infused with sacred purpose. Viewed as a word, “vav” translates as hook, peg, or nail. While this Hebrew letter lives up to its name by holding things together in this week’s Torah portion, vav invites us to be connectors ourselves.

Being connected is a major Jewish value. For example, the Hebrew word for synagogue is not Beit Tefilah, a house of prayer, but rather a Beit Knesset, a house of assembly. We become more than the sum of our parts when we combine our efforts and passion. Like water that boils when the heat increases from 211 degrees to 212, nine voices transform into a powerful spiritual quorum as soon as the tenth arrives.

The vav at the beginning of this week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim, subtly reminds leaders and community members alike that our lives are meant to be intertwined. This is demonstrated not only by following God’s law, but also building community through love, respect, and connection. Being a connector is as simple as saying hello, asking someone’s name, and taking the time to hear their story.

In Paul Revere’s Ride, David Hackett Fischer explains that when the Revolutionary War broke out, two riders were sent to spread the word. Yet, we only know of Paul Revere’s success. As the ultimate connector, Revere knew which doors to knock upon, and that made all the difference in the world.

By connecting with those around us, we not only enhance our sense of community, but also take strides towards creating an inclusive and just society inspired by the Torah’s laws. This sentiment is beautifully expressed by Rabbi Joachim Prinz, who asserted: “Neighbor is not a geographic term. It is a moral concept.”

As we navigate our way through the pandemic, this single vav stands tall as a beacon reminding us about the power of connection and the impact we can make.

About the Author
Rabbi Charlie Savenor is the incoming Executive Director of Civic Spirit. A graduate of Brandeis, JTS and Columbia University's Teachers College, he blogs on parenting, education, and leadership. In addition to supporting IDF Lone Soldiers, he serves on the international boards of Leket Israel and Gesher. He is writing a book called "What My Father Couldn't Tell Me."
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