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What is the Value of a Letter Vav?

Oct 28, 2010

The pasuk states: "One overeager for wealth has an evil eye ('ra ayin'), he does not know that lack may befall him" (Mishle 28:22).  Chazal explain: "one overeager for wealth has an evil eye" this is Ephron (see Bereishit Rabba 58:9), who placed an "evil eye" in the assets of a tzaddik.   Ephron promised to give Avraham the field and the cave free of charge: "I have given you the field, and as for the cave that is in it, I have given it to you" (Bereishit 23:11), yet in the end he collected the exorbitant fee of four hundred silver shekels, described by the Torah as "ovehr lasocher" (ibid. 16) - the most valuable shekels of the time (see Rashi ibid. and Bechoros 50a who state that each shekel was worth one hundred selah). 


"He does not know that lack may befall him" refers to the lack of the letter vav his name (the name Ephron is written "in full" with a vav following the reish with the exception of the last mention of his name where the vav is omitted - see Bereishit 23:16). (There are those who add that the words "ra ayin" in the pasuk referring to one with an evil eye has the numerical value 400.  This is equivalent to the numerical value of Ephron (without the vav).  The 400 shekels that this ra ayin absconded with from Avraham Avinu, lead to the vav being removed from his name with the remaining letters having the numerical value of ra ayin - 400).


What sort of punishment is for Ephron?  Ephron died before Matan Torah and therefore had no idea that the vav was removed from his name.  Even if he did know, was it of any interest to him whether his name is written with or without a vav?  Does he feel any difference?  Surely he preferred the shekels, all the more so if they were ovehr lasocher.  The answer is that a letter in the Torah is not just a drop of ink from the scribe's quill, every letter of the Torah represents "heaps and heaps of laws" (Menachot 29b).  And there are entire spiritual worlds hanging on each letter.  By having a single letter removed from his name, Ephron forfeited entire worlds that could have been attributed to him.  Not only did Ephron lose this letter of the Torah, but he lost an entire parsha!  He could have had an entire section of the Torah to his credit describing the righteous and generous way in which he acted towards Avraham and Sarah. Ephron, however, opted for money over chesed.  As a result he now "merited" an entire section of the Torah describing his wickedness, how "he said much and did not even do little" (Rashi Bereishit 23:16).


Elsewhere in Torah, we find a punishment similar to the one given to Ephron.  After describing the donations the people gave for the Mishkan: gold, silver, bronze, etc. the Torah writes: "and the leaders ('vehanesiim') brought the shoham stones and the filling stones for the Ehpod and for the Choshen, the spice and the oil for illumination and for the annointing oil ..." (Shmot 35:27-28).  The word vehanesiim is written with both of the letters yud missing (the one that should appear after the shin and the one that should appear following the aleph).  Rashi explains "the leaders said: 'let the public contribute whatever they contribute and what they leave wanting, we will complete, since the public completed everything ... the leaders said 'what is there left for us to do?' They brought the shoham stones ... because they lagged at the outset a letter was deleted from their names".


This requires some explanation - what was wrong with the behavior of the nesiim?  It seems very logical.  Why shouldn't there be some order and planning in the Mishkan donations?  If everyone brings what their heart desires there is a danger of having too much of one item while lacking in something else.  It appears to be more effective to first let the nation bring what they wish, and the nesiim would then pick up the slack and contribute whatever was still lacking.  The nesiim were willing to bring whatever was missing, and in fact the avnei shoham and avnei miluim which they donated were of great value.  Why do Chazal refer to them as "lagging" and therefore deserving of punishment?


From a purely material perspective, the nesiim's actions were effective and even praiseworthy.  However, this was not what Hashem asked for!  Hashem did not ask for donations of gold, silver, or precious stones.  Hashem asked for "nedivut lev" "donations from the heart" (Shmot 35:5).  Everyone should run to donate whatever he can, not worrying about a possible surplus of one item or scarcity of another.  Let Moshe Rabenu figure out how to deal with that problem.  By waiting to see what is missing, the nesiim were demonstrating a lack of enthusiasm, a lack of "heart" in carrying out this mitzvah, and it is for this they were punished by having two of the letters yud removed from their name.


Unlike Ephron, the nesiim corrected their ways and were greatly compensated. Later on, when the Mishkan was dedicated, the nesiim corrected this fault and rushed to bring offerings before the rest of the nation (see Rashi Shmot 35:27).  Given that "His measure of beneficence is greater than His measure of retribution" (Sanhedrin 100b), when they were punished they lost two letters, yet when they corrected their ways they merited a very lengthy portion of the Torah containing thousands of letters describing their donations (Bamidbar 7:1-89). 


Each nasi's korban was spelled out in detail even though they all brought the identical offering.  The Torah begins by describing the offering of Nachshon ben Aminadav representing the tribe of Yehuda: "His offering was: one silver bowl, its weight a hundred and thirty ..." (Bamidbar 7:13).  The next offering was brought by Nesanel ben Tzuar representing the tribe of Yissachar.  What did he offer?  "... one silver bowl, its weight a hundred and thirty ..." And the representative of Zevulun?  Precisely the same thing!  and so on regarding all the other tribes. After a few rounds of this we should be able to make an intelligent guess regarding what the others offered.  Would it not have been more efficient for the Torah to detail the initial offering of Nachshon ben Aminadav, and then inform us that he was followed by Nesanel ben Tzuar representing Yissachar, who was followed by Eliav ben Chelon representing Zevulun and so forth until the final offering of Achira ben Einan representing Naftali?  The same information - six psukim worth - is written twelve times.  Furthermore, at the conclusion of the listings of the offerings we are informed of the sum totals of every item brought - information we could have calculated on our own.  Would it not have been more efficient to spell out the korban the first time and simply state that twelve such offerings were brought?  Hashem was rewarding them with 89 psukim, hundreds of words, and thousands of letters describing their generosity.  They may have lost two letters when it came to donations for the mishkan but their running to bring the offerings for the dedication was rewarded with far more.


Following the section involving Ephron we have the story of Eliezer serving as Avraham's messenger to find a wife for Rivka.  Why was this section written at this point?  The obvious answer is that this was the chronological ordering of events - Avraham first purchased a burial plot for Sarah and then searched for a wife for Yitzchak. 


Perhaps we can offer an explanation based on what we have just discussed.  We began by mentioning that Ephron lost a letter from his name.  The story involving Eliezer's search for a wife for Yitzchak spans 67 psukim.  One who reads the story can easily think of ways it could have been written more briefly.  Chazal teach us that the reason for the elaboration is "The conversation of the slaves of the patriarchs is more pleasing before the Omnipresent than the Torah of their descendants" (Bereishit Rabbah 60:8 and see Rashi Bereishit 24:42).  Many halachot are only alluded to.  For example, we know what is forbidden on Shabbat only from its juxtaposition to the construction of the Mishkan.  Chazal derive from this juxtaposition that any act used for construction of the Mishkan is forbidden on Shabbat.  Eliezer, however, gets thousands of words.


There are other areas in which the Torah elaborates, where it could have been briefer.  The commandment to construct the Mishkan is written in great detail in Parshiyot Terumah and Tetzave, the precise measurements of each board and each vessel - this is two amot, this is four amot, etc.  Parshiyot Vayakhel and Pekudei which follow shortly thereafter, record Moshe having followed Hashem's instructions down to the last detail.  Rather than simply telling us that Moshe followed Hashem's directives, the Torah tells us precisely what Moshe did - repeating what we had already learned in Parshiyot Terumah and Tetzeve. 


Similarly, the book of Bamidbar begins with the counting of the Jewish nation.  We are told the number of people belonging to each tribe, then the total number of people.  Could we not have simply taken a pencil and paper and calculated this on our own.  Furthermore, shortly thereafter the Torah tells us the division into camps (flags) - three to the east, three to the west, etc.  Once again we are told the name of the nasi of each tribe, the number of members of each tribe, the total number of each camp (another sum we could have calculated on our own), and then the total number of people.   So many words are written on this topic because the Jewish people are so dear to Hashem, as is the Mishkan, as is the conversation with the servants of the patriarchs.


Searching for a wife for Yitzchak was no easy task for Eliezer, for "Eliezer had a daughter and he was searching to find a pretext so that Avraham would tell him to turn to himself to marry his daughter to Yitzchak" (Rashi Bereishit 24:39).  Avraham however was adamant that Eliezer go "to my land and to my kindred and take a wife for my son Yitzchak" (ibid. 4), insisting that the woman be from Avraham's extended family, reasoning that Yitzchak is blessed and Eliezer is cursed (from Cham) and a cursed one does not marry a blessed one.  Eliezer overcame his personal involvement and prayed sincerely to Hashem to help him fulfill his mission of finding a wife for Yitzchak.  Eliezer's prayer, which went against his own personal wishes, was answered. Chazal tell us that in reward, Eliezer is one of nine people (including Chanoch and Eliyahu HaNavi) who did not die in this world, but went straight to Gan Eden (see Massechet Derech Eretz 1:18). Eliezer's prayer was accepted because it was with all his heart, it was not mere lip service.  


We must appreciate the value of every word of Torah which we learn. Chazal teach us that ever word of Torah we learn creates worlds.  We have no idea what we are contributing with every Gemara, Rashi, and Tosafos which we learn.  Chazal teach us "he who studies Torah 'lishma' ... hastens the redemption, as it says 'And I have placed My words in your mouth - and with the shade of My hand have I covered you - to implant the heavens and to set a foundation for the earth and to say unto Zion, you are My people'" (Yeshayahu 51:16) (Sanhedrin 99b).    Our learning hastens the redemption.  We do not understand how sitting in a small room learning Torah creates worlds, but we must rest assured that it does.  Ephron had no appreciation of Torah, but we must no that every question, answer, and insight creates worlds. 


Hashem created the world and every word of Torah that we learn brings us closer to Him.  We should be grateful for the Torah Hashem gave us: asher natan lanu Torat emet vechaye olam nata betochenu.  It is our duty to try to master all 24 books of the Tanach as well as Shas and Poskim.  Although in Yeshiva, Tanach is not emphasized it is certainly something we should learn on our own - it is not meant to just remain on the shelf (trust me it is a good book). it is not meant to stand on the shelf,   We must be grateful for this great gift Hashem has given us, for having chosen us from all the nations: asher bachar banu mikol haamim venatan lanu et Torato.

Venue: Yeshivat Netiv Aryeh Yeshivat Netiv Aryeh


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