Monday, January 28, 2008


The most important letter
Rabbi Gustavo Surazski
Just a week ago we read about the revelation at Mount Sinai. We heard voices, saw lightning and spoke about the relationship between man and his God. A week ago we were almost in the heavens. This week we come back to earth.

The portion Mishpatim deals with the relations between man and his fellow-man. This week we hardly speak about God. This week we speak about theft and other criminal offences, about laws for the protection of the poor, the stranger, the orphan and the widow; about trespassing and damages.

In fact, whoever says that Judaism is a ritualistic religion evidently never read the portion Mishpatim.

"And these are the laws which you shall set before them" (Exodus 21, verse 1). Thus begins the portion. Why does it begin "And these are" and not "These are" without the word "And" which is the letter vav in Hebrew?

RaSHI refers to the letter vav in the opening verse and says, "As the first are from Sinai, so these are from Sinai". RaSHI connects the Ten Commandments to the laws that appear in this portion. "Do not think", Rashi wants to say, "that at Mount Sinai we were told only "I am the Lord thy God" and "Remember the Sabbath day". "You shall not oppress a stranger" and "You shall not subvert the rights of your needy in their disputes" were also said at Sinai. Judaism makes no distinction between ritual and morality. The letter vav meaning "And" serves as a bridge between heaven and earth.

Even so, there are still Jews who insist on looking upwards and not down. A friend told me recently that he had stopped attending his synagogue. He was never a religious man but his three-year-old daughter was killed in a terror attack and he went to the synagogue every week to say kaddish. I asked him why he had stopped going. He answered, "I went to the same synagogue for ten months. A week ago I sat during the service with my legs crossed. Someone came up to me and told me to straighten my legs, that it was not done to sit the way I was sitting. And then I thought to myself: "I've been coming here for ten months. No one ever said Shalom to me. In fact, no one ever asked me why I say kaddish. If the first time someone speaks to me is to tell me that it is forbidden to sit there with my legs crossed, I will not return to that place. I don't wish to pray in a place like that".

Judaism is a blend of heaven and earth. We are asked to look upwards, to rest on the Sabbath, to refrain from eating certain foods, to observe family purity. To the same degree we are asked to visit the sick, comfort mourners, and care for the poor, the stranger, the orphan and the widow. In the Torah there is no difference between heaven and earth. Both sets of commandments come from Sinai.

A few days ago something interesting happened to me. A friend from abroad sent me ten e-mails and I didn't answer even one. The truth is, I didn't answer because I didn't receive even one. A few weeks later, we found that he had omitted one letter of my e-mail address.
He said to me, "E-mail is like the Torah. If one letter is missing, the message does not reach its destination". I thought to myself: that is the value of the letter vav meaning "And" at the beginning of this Torah Portion. If it is missing, the message of the Torah does not reach its destination.

Perhaps it is the most important letter in the whole Torah.