When I was growing up, one man was a bit unpopular in synagogue because it seemed that every time he was called up to the Torah for an aliyah, he would find a problem in the scroll. One Shabbes this fellow got an aliyah and noticed a split letter, which disqualifies the Torah from use. So the Torah scroll was returned to the the ark with the cloth belt wrapped around its velvet cover to signify that it was not fit for use. Then another Torah scroll was opened and this one oddly enough contained the same mistake. The way I heard the story, they took out a third Torah, and only then did they realize that the broken letter, the vav of the word shalom at the beginning of Parshat Pinchas, is the only letter in the Torah that is not invalid if it is split. In fact, this letter must be written with a space between its top and bottom half.
This broken letter appears in the sentence stating that God gave Pinchas a brit shalom — covenant of peace. This covenant was granted to Pinchas as reward for his having ended extreme public misbehavior taking place in the Jewish camp via a fatal act of zealotry. God showed his approval by giving Pinchas a covenant of peace. What is the meaning of this split letter in the phrase “covenant of peace?”
Perhaps the broken letter in the word peace is a symbolic critique of this particular peace that Pinchas achieved. The crack in one of the letters of the word peace is telling us that a peace that is achieved through violence is a flawed and incomplete peace.
God’s granting Pinchas a covenant of peace is a postscript to the story of Pinchas. Most of the story takes place in last week’s Parshat Balak. Only the postscript of Pinchas’ reward appears in the parsha that bears his name. Why does this story have a unique break between most of the story and its ending?
Rabbi Moshe of Coucy (as cited by Rabbi Abraham Twerski) explains that a thin line separates impulsive intolerance from righteous zeal. Time clarifies motivation. The pause between Pinchas’ action and his reward represent a period of observation. After evaluation proved Pinchas was mature and sincere, his behavior was rewarded.
Many things that we do in life are unclear until time goes by. Teenagers sometimes act in ways that are part of their phase of self-discovery or rebellion. And sometimes they act in a way that is true to who they are for the rest of their lives. Activists and protesters sometimes have their own impetuous motivations of the moment. And sometimes they are genuinely acting in defense of their values. This can be applied to many moral and religious choices made in youth. The strength of one’s conviction is attested to only after a space in time. The passing of time often is needed to reveal what is real and what was just an impulse or a rush of adrenaline. This may be the lesson of the space between Pinchas’ action and his divine reward.
The break in a letter and the pause in the story teach us related lessons that have an urgency today. May we be blessed with peace, in so many arenas, that is as pure and unblemished as possible. And may our actions and choices of the moment look as clear and sincere years from now as we claim them to be as when we make them today.