Today we begin the book of Vayikra with the words: “Vayikra el Moshe elav may-ohel moed, laymor — God called to Moses from the Tent of Meeting, saying….” It’s striking that this book begins with the letter vav in the word “Vayikra.” This letter — vav — is also a word that means “and.” It’s a conjunction — a connecting word. Vav joins one thing with another. The letter vav, drawn as a simple straight line, began as all Hebrew letters did, as a picture of an object — in this case, a hook. In the Bible, Vav means not just “and,” but “hook” — an object that links two things together. This little letter has a profound message for us.
The medieval sage Rabbi Moses Isserles [Yoreh De‘ah 273:6] taught that a Torah scroll should be written by the scribe so that every column begins with the letter vav — to remind us that vav — connection — is the column on which our existence rests, the very pillar of our lives.
Rabbi Harold Schulweis, of blessed memory, points out that the Torah’s great teaching of oneness –”Hear, O Israel; Shema Yisrael, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Echad” — proclaiming the unity of all life, is followed directly by the letter of connection. He writes: “Pay attention to the ‘vav’ in your life. Pay attention to the ‘vav’ which unites you to the world. Listen carefully, because looked at superficially the world is filled with discordant notes, strident sounds, cacophonous voices that dramatize the division, … the separation, the disconnection, the disjunctions of life. The prayer that follows the Sh’ma...begins with vav. V’ahavta — “And you shall love…” [https://www.vbs.org/worship/meet-our-clergy/rabbi-harold-schulweis/sermons/echad; slightly adapted]
The vav, which appears in the Torah more often than any other letter, teaches us that we are all in this together and we are all responsible for each other. If we did not already know this, we are feeling it acutely in these weeks.
Rabbi Irwin Keller, reflecting on the name of this virus, COVID-19, notes that COVID sounds a lot like “Kaved,” the Hebrew word which means “heaviness, weightiness..” He writes: “…. I feel the heaviness of the responsibility ahead of us, the responsibility not to panic, the responsibility to learn and help each other learn the ways to stay healthy. And I feel the weight of the not-knowing—not knowing how exactly this will unfold.”
Kavod, derived from the same Hebrew root, means “respect or dignity.” Reflecting on this, Rabbi Keller writes, “I am called to honor the complexity of the Creation we live in. This Creation in which uncountable species compete for space and survival, including the tiniest ones, who can sometimes take down the mightiest among us … and on the other hand, to offer kavod, respect, to the wonder of us, the wonder of humanity, that we are frail and vulnerable and as a result we create and we sing and we make beauty out of our frailty and we build community to be stronger together than we are on our own.”
We are stronger when we remember the lesson of vav, the letter of connection. We are stronger when we link our lives together than when we insist we can make it on our own. Just as God reaches out to Moses, inviting him into the tent of meeting — Vayikra el Moshe — may we embrace every opportunity for connection, especially now. May we ask for help when we need it. And because virtual connection brings us together, may we never feel embarrassed to ask for help managing the new technology. Our incredible caring committee, led by Rachel Wainer and Adena Traub, is working hard to connect us to each other. I encourage you to reach out to volunteer or to share with your Beth El community how we can help you.
God is calling to us in these difficult times. So let’s reach out and bring everyone into this tent of meeting, this sacred community we share.