There once lived a poor, homeless beggar who had no home, no job, and no source of income, and his only means of sustenance were the coins occasionally dropped into his cup by compassionate pedestrians. One day, however, he had not a cent with which to purchase food. He waited, patiently at first, until eventually the pangs of hunger were just too overwhelming. He desperately needed food, and so he walked into a bakery, took some rolls, and quietly left, hopefully nobody would notice. He was wrong.
Later that day, he was taken by the authorities and put in jail for several days.
The next week, the country’s prince committed the exact same crime. He was traveling about and became hungry, and so he walked into a bakery, took some rolls and left, figuring he could get away without paying. The prince, too, was caught and punished for his crime. But whereas the beggar was imprisoned for just a few days, the prince was handed a harsh, full-year jail sentence.
The prince, who had heard of the beggar’s sentence, protested. Why, he asked, was he sentenced to a full year, while the beggar was let out of jail after just a few days?
The judge explained: “We can’t expect much more of the beggar. He’s not allowed to steal, but how harshly can we punish a homeless man who needs food? But you should know better. You are the king’s son. You were given a proper education and you have all that you need. Your crime is inexcusable!”
This fable was told by the Maggid of Duvna (Rabbi Yaakov Kranz, 1740-1804) to explain a verse towards the end of the Book of Vayikra. In one of the book’s final chapters (26), we read the dreadful “kelalot” (“curses”), the frightening description of the calamities that Gd threatens to visit upon the Jewish People if we fail to observe His laws. This section includes the most dreadful tragedies, such as deadly famine, enemy conquest, disease, and exile. Unfortunately, as we know, all these calamities have indeed befallen our nation at one point or another, and in one form or another, over the course of our history.
Surprisingly, at the end of this section, the Torah suddenly seems to change its tone, telling us that in our state of exile, Gd will remember the covenant He made with the patriarchs: “I shall remember My covenant with Yaakov, and also My covenant with Yitzhak, and also My covenant with Avraham…” (26:42). While this verse appears to send a message of consolation and reassurance, the Maggid suggested that to the contrary, it should be understood as part of the Torah’s warning. The Torah here reminds us that we are “princes,” that we come from “royal stock,” having descended from the saintly patriarchs. Far more is expected of us than of other peoples, as we bear the sacred, exalted legacy of Avraham, Yitzhak, and Yaakov. And this is precisely why Gd warns of such harsh consequences if we disobey Him. As the heirs of His covenant with our righteous forebears, we are held to an especially strict standard, and thus the consequences of disobedience are especially severe.
There is certainly much merit to the Maggid’s analysis, and the message is one which we need to repeatedly emphasize to ourselves and our children. What’s acceptable for other nations is not acceptable for us, as we were chosen to set a higher standard of moral and dignified conduct.
Nevertheless, as far as this verse is concerned, the accepted interpretation does not follow this approach. It is commonly understood that indeed, after warning of the horrific tragedies that would result from abandoning Gd’s laws, the Torah then shifts its tone to offer us encouragement and reassurance. In the paragraphs that follow, we will focus on one letter in this verse, and see how this letter gives us hope and embodies the upbeat, optimistic outlook that ought to characterize Torah life.
Eliyahu, Yaakov, and the Five Vav’s
Rashi, citing the Midrash, observes that the name of one of the three patriarchs – Yaakov – is written in an unusual manner in this verse. Specifically, the letter vav is added before the final letter, bet. This verse marks one of only five instances in the entire Tanach where Yaakov’s name is spelled this way. The precise opposite phenomenon, Rashi observes, is seen in the name of another prominent Biblical figure – Eliyahu Hanavi. While we are familiar with the name “Eliyahu,” there are five occasions in Tanach where Eliyahu’s name is written as “Eliyah,” without the vav at the end.
Rashi offers an enigmatic explanation for these unusual spellings of “Yaakov” and “Eliyahu.” He writes that Yaakov “seized” five vav’s from Eliyahu as security, so-to-speak, in order to guarantee that Eliyahu will return to the Jewish People to announce the final redemption. The famous verse toward the end of Malachi tells that Eliyahu will come to prepare us for Mashiah’s arrival, and Yaakov sought to guarantee Eliyahu’s return by seizing six vav’s as a “security deposit” of sorts.
Rashi’s comments, of course, require explanation. Why was Yaakov worried that Eliyahu would not arrive? Gd promised to send Eliyahu. Did Yaakov doubt Gd’s promise? Or did he suspect that Eliyahu would refuse the mission? Neither possibility seems even remotely plausible. And, once Yaakov felt compelled to take a “security deposit,” why did he take five vav’s? True, our sages teach us that the three patriarchs are associated, respectively, with the three Bateh Mikdash, and thus Yaakov is associated with the third and final Mikdash, which will, please Gd, be built at the time of Mashiah. Understandably, then, Yaakov felt “responsible,” so-to-speak, to ensure the final redemption. But how does this sense of responsibility translate into the “theft” of letters from Eliyahu’s name?
The Number 30
One explanation emerges from – surprisingly enough – the anatomy of the human hand.
The four large fingers of the hand have three joints each – one near the fingertip, a second in the middle of the finger, and a third at the point where the finger attaches to the hand. The thumb has only two joints, and so altogether, the human hand has fourteen joints. To this number we add the palm, such that the human hand is represented by the number 15.
When two individuals shake hands, expressing a commitment to peaceful relations, the two hands merge, and become 30. The number 30, then, is the number of peace, the number that reflects the desire of two people with different, or even conflicting, desires and interests, and who may even have been embroiled in a fierce argument just moments earlier, to work together peacefully.
This explains the significance of the six vav’s.
Our sages attribute our ongoing state of exile to our ongoing state of internecine fighting. The Jews at the time of the Second Temple’s destruction had torn themselves apart through internal conflict and strife, and we have yet to cure this devastating ill, even two millennia later. This is a fundamental truism of life that our tradition teaches us: fighting and discord brings destruction and havoc. Korah instigated an uprising in the wilderness, and it resulted in devastation, to the point where even the ground underneath him opened. During this period of year we commemorate the plague that destroyed Rabbi Akiva’s yeshiva after it was infected by strife. It is told that the Arizal left this world after a fight erupted in his yeshiva. And, of course, discord between a husband and wife can destroy a family and a home. As such, when Jews did not get along and fought bitterly with one another, our spiritual home – the Bet Hamikdash – was destroyed. And it continues to lie in ruins to this very day because we continue to fight.
The key to our redemption is the five vav’s. The gematria(numerical value) of the letter vavis 6, and thus the value of five vav’s is 30. We earn redemption by shaking hands, by merging our hand with our fellow’s hand in peace and friendship. Eliyahu will come to announce the end of exile when we master this skill, of working peacefully together with other people despite our differences and conflicting interests. Once we live up to this ideal, which is represented by the number 30, we will be ready to greet Eliyahu Hanavi and Mashiah.
Waiting for the Fifth Cup
The second explanation of this Midrash brings us back a few weeks, to the Pesach seder.
As we know, halachah requires drinking four cups of wine at the seder, an obligation most commonly understood as commemorating the four expressions with which Gd promised to extricate Beneh Yisrael from Egyptian bondage: “I shall take them from underneath the suffering of Egypt; I shall rescue them from their labor; I shall redeem them…; I shall take them for Me as a nation” (Shemot 6:6-7).
There is, however, also a fifth promise which Gd makes in this context: “I shall bring them to the land…” (6:8). We do not commemorate this promise, though, because it refers to our permanent residence in the Land of Israel, which will occur in the Messianic Era. This fifth promise was not fulfilled at the time of the Exodus from Egypt, and we still eagerly await its fulfillment to this very day. Interestingly, many communities have the custom of placing a cup of wine on the table which they call “Eliyahu’s cup,” to represent Eliyahu Hanavi. This fifth cup expresses our hope in the ultimate fulfillment of the fifth promise. It signifies our anticipation of the fifth cup, of the time when Eliyahu will arrive and announce our final redemption, whereupon we will all live securely in the Land of Israel with the rebuilt Bet Hamikdash.
This explains the notion of five vav’s from Eliyahu’s name being held as “security.” These vav’s represent the five promises of redemption which will, in the future, be fulfilled in full. Now, in our current state, our celebration of freedom is incomplete. While we give praise to the Almighty for our freedom from Egyptian slavery, we recognize that there is one promise which we have as yet been unworthy of seeing fulfilled. All five promises begin with the letter vav: “Vehotzeti,” “Vehitzalti,” “Vega’alti,” “Velakahti,” “Veheveti.” These are the five vav’s that Yaakov Avinu holds, as we wait for Eliyahu to come and herald our nation’s redemption, when all five promises will be fulfilled.
There is also a third possibility, one which brings us to the wisdom of Kabbalah. Our sages teach that the divine Name of Havayah, which is spelled with the letters yod, heh, vavand then another heh, is “incomplete” during our period of exile. In our current state, the Name consists of only the first two letters – yodand heh. When the redemption arrives, the second two letters – vav and heh – will be rejoined with the first two to complete the Name of Gd. This is the concept alluded to by the description of the five vav’s held by Yaakov until the time of our redemption. The number 5 is represented by the letter heh, and thus five vav’s are represented by the letters vav and heh. In our state of exile, these letters are hidden away, separated from the rest of the divine Name, but we are guaranteed that when Eliyahu arrives, the vav and heh will be restored, and Gd’s Name will once again be complete.
A Lesson in Optimism and Hope
It is worth taking a moment to reflect on the broader significance of this message of hope that concludes the otherwise dreadful section of kelalot.
The Torah saw fit to conclude on a positive note because the Torah teaches us never to despair. Even as it warns us of harsh punishment on account of our sins, the Torah ends by reminding us of the vav’s, of the guarantee we have been given that the hardship will not last forever. We are reminded that even if we see just half of Gd’s Name, when our situation seems bleak, we can rest assured that the Name will be completed, that much brighter, happier days will yet be upon us.
As we noted earlier, our tradition attributes our state of exile to the sin of baseless hatred among Jews, an ill that has yet to be cured, to this very day. This realization could cause people despair. After all, wherever we look in the Jewish world, we see infighting. One of the most disheartening parts of my job as a community rabbi is being exposed to so many conflicts. Rabbis regularly deal with married couples embroiled in conflict, siblings who haven’t spoken to each other in years, neighbors who dislike each other, close friendships and business partnerships torn asunder by friction, and institutions overridden by strife. This is even before we get to the tension that exists between the different groups and denominations among Am Yisrael. All this fighting could easily leave us wondering how our problems will ever be solved, and how the Jewish People will ever be ready for redemption.
The Torah’s conclusion to the kelalot section, I believe, must inform our attitude to these and the other problems plaguing the Jewish world. It tells us that we Jews believe in optimism and hope. We believe that no matter how dire a situation appears, it can change, quickly and drastically. After the litany of horrors described in this section, the Torah reminds us of the vav’s, of the guarantee of our ultimate redemption. It does not end on a note of despair and hopelessness. To the contrary, it assures us that the calamities described are only temporary. The purpose of this section is not to sow depression, but rather to encourage us to obey Gd’s law, and to guarantee us that even if we fail, and we suffer the consequences, we can and will recover.
This is also the lesson of Lag Ba’omer, which we celebrate this month. After observing several weeks of mourning for the disciples of Rabbi Akiva, who perished during the period after Pesach, we celebrate on Lag Ba’omer, when the plague ended, and when Rabbi Akiva assembled a new group of students through whom Torah scholarship continued. We remind ourselves that every period of hardship is temporary, that no matter what kind of pain we experience or problem we face, there is hope for a brighter future.
Judaism teaches us to be happy, hopeful, optimistic and positive. We are not to wallow in sorrow or indulge in excessive complaining. Sure, there are problems that should disturb us, and as mentioned, nobody knows more about the problems plaguing our community than we rabbis. But we are urged to remain positive and cheerful. I have had the privilege of knowing many distinguished rabbis of many different kinds, but not a single one of them could be described as depressed. Somebody who conducts his life according to Torah values lives his life with joyful optimism – because this is an essential Torah value.
The next time we feel like complaining or lamenting a problem, let’s take a moment to remember this message. The five vav’s teach us that even in the direst of circumstances, Eliyahu is waiting on the horizon to bring us all to a future full of joy and fulfillment – and so there is never reason for depression of despair, and there is every reason for hope and encouragement.