The Secret of the Vav Ketiah

We know the story. Balak hired Bilaam to curse Yisrael but was unsuccessful because Bilaam was permitted only to speak blessings upon Yisrael. Nevertheless, Bilaam devised a plan, which he knew that if it succeeded, destruction would come upon Yisrael from Hashem himself (see Sanhedrin 106a for details). The succinct summary is provided in Bemidbar 25:1-2: וַיֵּשֶׁב יִשְׂרָאֵל בַּשִּׁטִּים וַיָּחֶל הָעָם לִזְנוֹת אֶל־בְּנוֹת מוֹאָב׃ וַתִּקְרֶאןָ לָעָם לְזִבְחֵי אֱלֹהֵיהֶן וַיֹּאכַל הָעָם וַיִּשְׁתַּחֲווּ לֵאלֹהֵיהֶן (And Yisrael dwelt in Shittim and the people profaned themselves by whoring with the women of Moav who had invited the people to sacrifice to their gods and the people ate and drank to their gods). Bilaam’s plan was working perfectly for it brought out the anger of Hashem against the people, something which he was not able to accomplish directly (25:3): וַיִּצָּמֶד יִשְׂרָאֵל לְבַעַל פְּעוֹר וַיִּחַר־אַף יְהֹוָה בְּיִשְׂרָאֵל (And Yisrael attached itself to Baal-Peor, and Hashem became enraged against Yisrael).

If that wasn’t bad enough, Zimri ben Salu, a leader from the tribe of Shimon, openly committed an act of lewdness with Kozbi bat Tzur, a princess of Midian. Pinchas, seemingly taking matters into his own hands, picked up a spear, went into the tent and thrust it right through Zimri and Kozbi at the precise point of their immoral union, instantaneously aborting a plague that had broken out among the people (25:8): וַתֵּעָצַר הַמַּגֵּפָה מֵעַל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל (And the plague that broke out upon B’nei Yisrael was stopped). Hashem then responds by praising Pinchas (25:11): פִּינְחָס בֶּן־אֶלְעָזָר בֶּן־אַהֲרֹן הַכֹּהֵן הֵשִׁיב אֶת־חֲמָתִי מֵעַל בְּנֵי־יִשְׂרָאֵל בְּקַנְאוֹ אֶת־קִנְאָתִי בְּתוֹכָם וְלֹא־כִלִּיתִי אֶת־בְּנֵי־יִשְׂרָאֵל בְּקִנְאָתִי (Pinchas ben Elazar ben Aaron the Kohen turned away my anger from B’nei Yisrael with his zeal toward My zeal among them so that I didn’t destroy B’nei Yisrael in My zeal). Not only that, but He tells Moshe Rabbeinu to give him a special message (25:12): הִנְנִי נֹתֵן לוֹ אֶת־בְּרִיתִי שָׁלוֹם (Behold I, give to him My covenant of shalom).

This is very strange on at least two levels. First of all, how come the person who openly kills in an act of extrajudicial zeal is rewarded by G d himself with a pact of shalom? And secondly, how come the word shalom [שלום] is spelled with a broken ו, that which is known as the ו’ קטיעה [vav ketiah, the amputated vav]? Normally, every letter of the Torah must be written without any defect or flaw, and if a defect exists it invalidates the entire Sefer Torah. But here, the vav is specifically written with a break in it, and it doesn’t invalidate the Sefer Torah!

If we can find a single explanation that simultaneously provides an answer to both of these questions, then perhaps we have discovered a good explanation of these apparent paradoxes.

R’ Nachman teaches (Likutei Moharan 241): כְּשֶׁיֵּשׁ דִּינִים חַס וְשָׁלוֹם אֲזַי הַמִּדַּת הַדִּין הָיָה מְכַלֶּה אֶת הָאָדָם חַס וְשָׁלוֹם אֲבָל הַמִּדַּת הַדִּין אֵין לָהּ כֹּחַ לְכַלּוֹת לְגַמְרֵי כְּמוֹ שֶׁאָמְרוּ רַבּוֹתֵינוּ זִכְרוֹנָם לִבְרָכָה חִצַּי כָּלִים וְהֵם אֵינָם כָּלִים (When there are judgments, G d forbid, then the Attribute of Justice could destroy the man, G d forbid; however, the Attribute of Justice doesn’t have the power to completely destroy, as our Rabbis, may their memory be for a blessing, said [Sotah 9a]: ‘My arrows are consumed but they [the Jewish People] are not consumed’). This statement from Chazal was made in reference to what is written in Devarim 32:23: אַסְפֶּה עָלֵימוֹ רָעוֹת חִצַּי אֲכַלֶּה־בָּם (I will sweep evil upon them, I will consume my arrows on them). So there seems to be a form of restraint when Heaven itself executes judgment.

However, when man takes up the judgment, it’s another story altogether. Continuing in L.M. 241: אֲבָל הָאָדָם יֵשׁ לוֹ כֹּחַ לְכַלּוֹת לְגַמְרֵי אֶת חֲבֵרוֹ חַס וְשָׁלוֹם וְעַל כֵּן כְּשֶׁיֵּשׁ דִּינִים עַל אָדָם אֶחָד חַס וְשָׁלוֹם וּבָא אָדָם אַחֵר וְעוֹמֵד וְחוֹלֵק עָלָיו אֲזַי מִדַּת הַדִּין מִסְתַּלֵּק מִמֶּנּוּ כִּי הֵם רוֹצִים יוֹתֵר שֶׁיִּנְקֹם בּוֹ הָאָדָם כִּי יֵשׁ לוֹ כֹּחַ (However, man has the power to completely destroy, G d forbid; therefore, when there are judgments against an individual, G d forbid, and another person comes along and stands against him, then the Attribute of Justice leaves the individual because they [angels assigned the task of administering justice] prefer that a man will execute vengeance because he has the power [to destroy completely]). By way of illustration, this explains why David ha-Melech preferred that Hashem pass judgment instead of man after he conducted an illegal national census (Shemuel Bet 24:14): וַיֹּאמֶר דָּוִד אֶל־גָּד צַר־לִי מְאֹד נִפְּלָה־נָּא בְיַד־יְוָ כִּי־רַבִּים רַחֲמָו וּבְיַד־אָדָם אַל־אֶפֹּלָה (And David said to Gad, I am in tremendous distress; let me fall into the hand of Hashem because His mercies are abundant, but let me not fall into the hand of man).

Therefore, the Attribute of Justice was more than pleased when it saw that Pinchas took matters into his own hands. When Pinchas turned away the anger of Hashem, the Attribute of Justice went away from Yisrael, but instead of Pinchas acting with vengeance typical of most men, he did just the reverse! He acted with tremendous restraint and executed only Zimri and Kozbi. As R’ Nachman explains (L.M. 241): עַל־כֵּן עָשָׂה פִּינְחָס טוֹבָה נִפְלָאָה לְיִשְׂרָאֵל בַּמֶּה שֶׁלָּבַשׁ קִנְאָה לִנְקֹם בָּהֶם כִּי עַל־יְדֵי־זֶה רָפְתָה מִיִּשְׂרָאֵל כֹּחַ הַדִּינִים בְּחֹשְׁבָם שֶׁפִּינְחָס יִנְקֹם בָּהֶם בְּיוֹתֵר כִּי פִּינְחָס הוּא אָדָם שֶׁיֵּשׁ לוֹ כֹּחַ לִנְקֹם יוֹתֵר לְכַלּוֹת לְגַמְרֵי חַס וְשָׁלוֹם (Therefore, Pinchas did a wonderful favor for Yisrael in that he clothed himself with vengeance to exact vengeance against them, because through this he weakened the power of judgment against Yisrael in that they thought that Pinchas would exact vengeance against [Yisrael] even more since Pinchas was a man who had the power to exact even more vengeance to completely destroy, G d forbid). So really, Pinchas tricked the Heavenly Tribunal and pulled a switcheroo, literally. He turned ‘My anger’ [חֲמָתִי, chamati] into ‘I erase’ [מָחִיתִי, machiti], as in (Yeshayah 44:22): מָחִיתִי כָעָב פְּשָׁעֶיךָ (I erase [machiti] your crimes like a cloud). (The reader may notice that there’s an extra י [yud] in machiti that’s not in chamati. Perhaps that’s the explanation for the unique way that the name פִּינְחָס [Pinchas] is written at the beginning of the parashah. It is written in Bemidbar 25:11 with a small י, demoted there so that it could be promoted in the word machiti.)

Therefore, contrary to what many have assumed from a casual reading of the story, Pinchas was an exceedingly compassionate man. This may be difficult for us to understand, but there are such great tzaddikim—even in our world today—some who are tzaddikim their entire lives, others who rise to the level of a tzaddik for just a moment, who see the world, and everything in it, differently than how the rest of us see it. This is stated explicitly in Sichot ha-Ran 96: כִּי הַצַּדִּיק מַטֶּה כְּלַפֵּי חֶסֶד וְדָן אֶת כָּל הַחוֹלְקִים עָלָיו לְכַף זְכוּת שֶׁכַּוָּנָתָם לְשֵׁם שָׁמַיִם (For a tzaddik inclines toward chesed and judges those who oppose him [and G d], with the benefit of the doubt, assuming that their intention must have been for the sake of Heaven). Perhaps Pinchas was just such an individual who rose to the level of a tzaddik for that moment, to save the Jewish People from even a worse fate, G d forbid, than the death of 24,000 (see Bemidbar 25:9).

Now we come to our second question, the mystery of the vav ketiah. How can it be that this amputated vav is not defined as a defective letter? After all, if it were a defective letter it would invalidate the entire Sefer Torah. Further, of all words where this vav ketiah could have been found, it is specifically in the word shalom in this story! True, shalom means ‘peace’, but it comes from the word שלם [shalem] meaning wholeness or perfection. Is this shalom not rooted in perfection or wholeness?

Discussing what Eliyahu ha-Navi accomplished many years later in repairing the altar of Hashem at Mt. Carmel (Melachim Aleph 18:30), וַיְרַפֵּא אֶת־מִזְבַּח יְוָ הֶהָרוּס (And he repaired [literally, ‘healed’] the altar of Hashem that had been torn down), the Zohar ha-Kadosh says (Noach 66b with Matok m’Dvash commentary): מַאי וַיְרַפֵּא תָּא חֲזֵי בִּימֵי אֵלִיָּהוּ יִשְׂרָאֵל כֻּלְהוּ שָׁבְקוּ לֵיהּ לְקוּדְשָׁא בְּרִיךְ הוּא וְשָׁבְקוּ בְּרִית קַיָּימָא דִלְהוֹן כַּד אֲתָא אֵלִיָּהוּ וְחָמָא דְקָא שָׁבְקוּ בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל הַאי בְּרִית קַיָּימָא וְאַעֲבָרוּ מִנַּיְיהוּ הַאי בְּרִית כֵּיוָן דְּחָמָא אֵלִיָּהוּ כָךְ אֲתָא לְאַתְקָנָא מִלָּה לְדוּכְתֵּיהּ (What is the meaning of ‘and he healed? Shouldn’t the verse have said ‘and he built’ or ‘and he repaired’? Come, see: In the days of Eliyahu, all Yisrael forsook the Holy One, blessed be He, and served avodah zarah, and forsook their eternal covenant by failing to perform the mitzvah of circumcision and/or by becoming involved in forbidden relations, G d forbid. As a result of this, the sefirah of malchut, here called ‘the altar of Hashem’ got destroyed. When Eliyahu came and saw that B’nei Yisrael forsook the eternal covenant and the holy brit was nullified among them, i.e. that the sefirah of malchut was separated from the sefirah of yesod and there was no longer yichud between the Holy One, blessed be He, and His Divine Presence, the Shechinah, Eliyahu came and made reparations and restored malchut to its place with yesod). When we, as the Jewish People, fail to be shomer brit, we destroy worlds by specifically severing the connection between the Holy One, blessed be He, and His Shechinah. After all, we are made in the image of G d, and as such, our actions are far-reaching, so far-reaching that they impact the intimacy, the yichud, of the sefirahs in the world of Atzilut, specifically the intimacy between the yesod of the Holy One, blessed be He, (which corresponds to the male brit) and malchut, His sister-bride (which corresponds to the female).

Then the Zohar reveals the secret behind the actions of Pinchas: אוּף הָכִי פִּנְחָס בְּשַׁעֲתָא דְקַנֵּי לְעוֹבָדָא דְזִמְרִי אַתְקִין לְהַאי בְּרִית בְּאַתְרֵיהּ (Just like Eliyahu, Pinchas too, when he acted with zeal against Zimri, repaired the brit which had become damaged and made ritually impure through the sinful and immoral actions of B’nei Yisrael with the women of Moav, to its proper place, i.e. he reunified the sefirah of malchut with the sefirah of yesod and reestablished yichud between the Holy One, blessed be He, and His Shechinah). This is the deeper meaning of what we read earlier (Bemidbar 25:12): הִנְנִי נֹתֵן לוֹ אֶת־בְּרִיתִי שָׁלוֹם (Behold I, give to him My covenant [brit] of shalom). The shalom being spoken about here is the yichud between the Holy One, blessed be He, and His Shechinah! That’s why Hashem calls it ‘My brit‘.

We should now be able to understand why the vav ketiah appears specifically in the word shalom, specifically after the action of Pinchas, and why, even though it is a broken letter, it is not a defective letter to invalidate a Sefer Torah. What does the broken vav mean? First of all, what does a vav typically symbolize? As is known, a vav has the gematria of 6, which symbolizes the sefirah of yesod, the 6th sefirah starting from chesed, i.e. chesed, gevurah, tiferet, netzach, hod and yesod. The word vav itself means ‘connection’ or ‘hook’ (as we see throughout the Torah in the verses describing the curtains that surrounded the courtyard which contained the Mishkan). The vav, which is the aspect of the sefirah of yesod, is the connection point between the six ‘male’ sefirot of Ze’ir Anpin, i.e. the Holy One, blessed be He, and the ‘female’ sefirah of malchut, His Shechinah. And how does this yichud happen? It happens only when we break or sever our lust for lewdness and sexual immorality. That is the vav ketiah. And when we create this vav ketiah in our lives, then we create yichud, i.e. shalom, between the Holy One, blessed be He, and His Shechinah.

So why all of this just to explain an interesting detail in an ancient story? Because it’s not just an ancient story. It’s a story that is replaying itself over and over again, especially in our days. Instead of the women of Moav, we have the internet with all of the lewdness that it has to offer. The attack to destroy B’nei Yisrael, G d forbid, has always targeted the sefirah of yesod, the sanctity of our brit and the sefirah of malchut, the modesty of our women. As Jews, everything we do, for good or for bad, G d forbid, affects the upper worlds. There is no getting around that.

Perhaps now we can understand Tehillim 137:7: זְכֹר יְוָ לִבְנֵי אֱדוֹם אֵת יוֹם יְרוּשָׁלָ͏ִם הָאֹמְרִים עָרוּ  עָרוּ עַד הַיְסוֹד בָּהּ (Remember, Hashem, B’nei Edom [Esav], the day of Yerushalayim when they said, ‘Raze it, raze it, down to its yesod). If they succeed at destroying the yesod, i.e. the holy brit, then they destroy everything, G d forbid.

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