The Broken Vav
By Keith Bloomfield
It was difficult for Bob Feldman to come to grips with the end of his high school years and his impending departure to college many miles from his home. It was just as challenging for him to be leaving the security of his friends and the synagogue that had nurtured him for as long as he could remember. This weekend was his final Shabbat retreat. He had packed a bag and said good-bye to his mother before driving himself to the synagogue. He would leave his car in the parking lot, meet the Rabbi and leaders at the synagogue, and board a waiting bus for a trip to the shores of Queens, NY.
No stranger to retreats, Bob quickly stowed his bag in the luggage compartment beneath one of the buses and started helping his friends to do the same. Out of the corner of one eye, he saw a youngster who was less than thrilled about the weekend. His crocheted kippah was perched precariously on a head of tussled straw-colored hair. He recognized the boy from other activities, but did not know his name.
"It's only for the weekend, Larry. We'll meet you right back here on Sunday," said his Mother.
"I don't want to go," he sputtered, working hard to hold back the tears.
Bob walked up to the boy and thrust out his hand. "How ya doin'? I'm Bob Feldman. I recognize you, but I can't remember your name."
The boy's mother was about to answer for her son, but Bob's eyes told her that it would be a mistake. "I'm Larry Isaacs," he said slowly, as he shook Bob's hand in return.
"I bet that this is your first retreat."
"How did you know?" asked Larry.
"Just a wild guess. I can still remember my first retreat." He shielded his mouth with one hand and bent toward Larry's ear. "I didn't want to go either," he whispered.
Bob looked to his left and then to his right. "I was afraid," he whispered again, "but you're not afraid."
"No, not me," replied Larry.
"Then it's time to get this suitcase on the bus. It was really nice meeting you Mr. and Mrs. Isaacs. Larry is going to have the time of his life. I'll see to it myself." Larry started dragging his heavy suitcase toward the bus. His mother had packed for a week, not merely for a weekend.
As the boy wrestled with the bag, his mother leaned toward Bob. "Thank you. Whatever you said to him seems to have made a real difference. He wasn't going to go at all. Now, I don't think we could hold him back. What did you say to him?"
"It's not important Mrs. Isaacs, but when I saw Larry, I saw a bit of myself at that age. He'll have the greatest Shabbat of his life. I promise! Now I think he needs some help. The bag is bigger than him." Bob helped the youngster push the bag into the luggage compartment and as Larry mounted the steps into the bus, he turned to his parents and gave them the biggest wave and the broadest smile that they had ever seen.
The buses filled quickly. As the caravan pulled out of the parking lot, moms and dads waved at their children and children tried hard not to be embarrassed by the parents' antics. Bob sat with several of his friends at the back of one bus and Larry sat alone near the front of the same bus, staring back at Bob every few minutes. Bob knew what was happening and he was not ignoring the youngster to be cruel. He knew what was in store for him and that he would return to his parents a little bit older and a little bit different. By brunch on Sunday, Larry would understand.
As the suburbs slipped away, the skyscrapers of Manhattan came into view, Bob thought about the schedule for the next 36 hours. Once they arrived, there would be just enough time to get ready for Friday night services. After services, there was dinner, followed by singing and dancing. Maybe even a late night discussion group with the Rabbi or one of the leaders. Bob always enjoyed those. Unlike Hebrew School, where the teacher had specific topics to cover, these impromptu sessions covered nearly any topic even remotely related to the theme of the retreat and only ended when the last participant dozed off or was too tired to continue. Soon even Manhattan's tall buildings were behind them as the buses headed for the shore. Bob caught Larry staring at him from the front of the bus. He smiled and waved back. Larry hesitantly returned the greeting and went back to looking out of the window.
Every retreat had a theme. For this weekend, the theme came from the Book of Proverbs:
"Its ways are ways of pleasantness, and all its paths are peace."
With a war raging in Southeast Asia and racial strife throughout the United States, the Rabbi wanted to make the point that the Torah's central message was one of peace. Bob agreed with the selection.
The old hotel was a short distance from the beach. As they climbed down from the buses, they could hear the sound of the waves breaking on the beach. This grand old oceanfront dame had seen better days. It was still weeks before the start of the season and the Rabbi must have negotiated a good rate for the facility. Larry stepped down from the bus in front of Bob. "It's pink," he declared.
"Actually, I think they call it coral."
"Maybe its coral to you, but it sure looks like pink to me."
"Well, we're here until Sunday, so let's make the best of it."
Traffic had been heavier than expected and they had just enough time to check in and get ready for Shabbat. A portion of the hotel ballroom had been transformed into a temporary sanctuary, complete with podiums for the Rabbi and Cantor and an ornate, curtain covered Aron Kodesh. Bob had seen it before and wondered if anyone had ever fixed the cord that opened the curtain. One year, someone had pulled the cord so hard that the ark nearly fell over. The Sefer Torah tumbled out and was caught by the Rabbi before it hit the ground.
As they began the candle lighting, everyone found a place to sit and only the chanting of the candle lighters could be heard in the immense room. Services were uneventful and the Rabbi's D'var Torah set the tone for the rest of the weekend. Bob could feel his stomach growl. It was time to eat.
Tables were set up in another section of the ballroom and the seats filled much faster than they had for services. Bob kept glancing over at Larry. While the rest of the room ate, sang, and danced, Larry sat quietly, nearly alone at a table in the corner. Bob thought about what he had promised Larry's parents. So far, it was not the experience that Larry had hoped it would be.
It was just past midnight when a small knot of Bob and his friends began to emerge from their rooms and settle on the hallway floor. Aaron was one of the advisors for the weekend. He was studying to be a rabbi and Bob knew that any discussion he led was going to be a good one. Suddenly, the door behind Aaron opened a crack and a pair of eyes peered out from the darkness. It was Larry. Bob waved for him to come and join them.
"What's going on?" he asked, rubbing his eyes.
"We're having a little conversation," said Bob.
"But I thought we weren't supposed to leave the rooms after lights out."
Bob looked over at Aaron. Larry was right, the rules were very clear about leaving the rooms once the lights were turned off, but that was to keep everyone on the same floor. Coming out of the rooms for conversations on the theme were always anticipated by the veterans and a welcome surprise to the first-timers.
"It's OK Larry, as long as Aaron is here."
Aaron looked back over his shoulder and encouraged Larry to come and join the older boys. While most of the others were wearing sweat pants or athletic shorts and tee shirts, Larry stepped into the hallway clad in pajamas imprinted with pictures of wild animals. Bob's friends did all they could not to laugh at him.
Aaron immediately took control and posed a question. "What do you think was meant by -Its ways are ways of pleasantness, and all its paths are peace?" His question was met with blank faces, shrugs, and eyes diverted from his direction. Only Larry raised his hand. "OK Larry. What do you think it means?"
"Well, that's only part of the quote. It's talking about the Torah as an Etz Chaim - a Tree of Life. It says: It is a Tree of Life for all who hold fast to it. Its ways are ways of pleasantness and all its paths are peace. The Tree of Life and the Tree of Knowledge were both at the center of the Garden of Eden." Aaron and the other kids in the hallway perked up and began listening to what Larry was saying. Bob watched Aaron's response to the boy. Even he was impressed.
"The kid is sitting here with us in his animal PJs and delivering a D'var Torah that has a third year rabbinical student enthralled."
When the crew in the hallway began to ask Larry questions, he answered them with an aplomb that many adults lack. "Lions, and Tigers, and Bears. Oh my!" thought Bob. There was something special about this youngster that Bob did not bargain on. The conversation continued into the wee hours of the morning, until only Larry, Aaron, and Bob remained. They agreed it was time for bed and each padded off to his room.
Bob awoke in the morning as though he had never gone to sleep. The sun was shining through the windows and he rushed to grab a little breakfast before the start of services. Aaron was working on his third cup of coffee and trying to keep his eyes open. Larry was seated at a table looking like he had had a full night's sleep, surrounded by plates stacked high with bagels, French toast, and pancakes.
"Boker tov," said Bob, as he passed Larry's table.
"Boker tov to you too! Hey, wasn't last night fun?"
"You were pretty amazing! I would never have expected to hear so much wisdom from someone as young as you."
"Do you think that maybe I said too much? Sometimes I get carried away."
"No, it was the best hallway session I can ever remember! Anymore surprises for us?"
Larry started to giggle. "I don't know yet. It's still pretty early."
Bob rushed to the buffet table and scarfed down a plate of cold scrambled eggs and a dry piece of toast. "I guess this will have to hold me until after services," he grumbled.
Shabbat morning services moved along effortlessly until the start of the Torah service. Bob saw Larry stand and slowly walk to the front of the room. Still half asleep, Bob thought to himself, "I guess he has the honor of opening the curtain so they can remove the Sefer Torah." Then it struck him. He remembered how the curtain mechanism sticks and how it nearly toppled the entire Aron Kodesh¸ but it was too late. Larry had his hand on the cord and was already beginning to pull on it. To Bob's amazement, the curtain slid open effortlessly. There was a broad smile on Larry's face as the Rabbi removed the Torah and Larry stood at his side during the Shema and followed along in the slow procession around the room. When the group passed Bob, he touched the breastplate with the corner of his tallis and brought the corner up to his lips. "Shabbat shalom," he said to each member of the procession. When Larry passed by, he stuck out his hand and said, "Yasher koach" congratulations.
"Todah rabbah," Thank you, he replied, his smile growing even broader.
"I guess someone must have fixed the curtain," he thought, as they sat down and the Torah reading began. When they were ready to return the scroll to the ark another youngster was called upon to open the curtain. It wouldn't budge. No matter how he yanked, pulled, or tugged on the cord, the curtain would not open as it had for Larry. Finally in desperation, the Rabbi pushed the curtain out of the way by hand and replaced the scroll. "That was very strange," thought Bob. "I guess the kid was just lucky!"
After lunch they broke into small groups to discuss the theme and prepare a skit or some other kind of presentation that they would have to make after Shabbat. The Rabbi decided to work with the oldest attendees and they adjourned with him to a large room a table and a few chairs. Bob watched Larry go off with his group, a bunch of loud, brash youngsters. While they walked down the broad hallway, bouncing each other against the walls in horseplay, Larry followed silently. Bob had no idea what would come out of that group.
After the discussions, it was time for Mincha and the Seudah Shleshit, a light pre-dinner meal and another chance to explore the theme of the retreat. Larry entered the ballroom at the center of the same phalanx of youngsters he had left with after lunch. Things had certainly changed. While they chowed down on scoops of tuna and egg salad, thick slices of tomato perched on a bed of lettuce, it was clear that Larry was now in charge. He continued to impress Bob. "I wonder what's in store for us this evening. However they interpret the theme, I know Larry had his hand in it!"
As Shabbat was coming to a close, in a portion of the vast hotel ballroom his friends chanted Marriv while Bob's mind was far away from the service. While his summer was still in question, he knew where he would be starting college in the fall. This was his last retreat and he knew that he would never see many of his retreat friends again. He wondered if his faith was strong enough to resist all the temptations that life away from home would present.
When Marriv ended, one of the advisors began chanting a ningun, a wordless melody that everyone in the room quickly made their own and joined in the chanting. Over this mantra, the Rabbi took the opportunity to speak briefly about the significance of the Havdalah service. "We perform the Havdalah service with its three primary symbols the multi-wicked candle, the spicebox, and the wine, as a conscious act of separation. We are separating ourselves from the holiness of the Shabbat and returning to the mundane work of the balance of the week."
As the Rabbi finished his remarks, the lights in the room began to dim. In its heyday, the hotel offered its guests dancing beneath the stars thanks to a retractable roof over its ballroom. While the Rabbi and several of the adult advisors may have known about it, Bob and the other attendees had no idea what to expect. First, there was no sound, but a barely perceptible vibration that seemed to start over their heads and work its way down to the floor. Then the vibration gave way to a rumble and the rumble to the metallic sound of gear against gear that had everyone in the room looking up and gasping. Suddenly, a widening slit that ran the entire length of the room was visible in the roof. As the slit opened, a moonless sky could be seen above.
That's when Bob began to feel it. At first, it was just discomfort in one leg and one leg became both legs and he looked down to see the cause of the pain. It was Larry. He had wrapped his arms around Bob's legs and was holding on with all of his might. Bob glared down at him. "What are you doing?"
"Now, I'm really afraid."
"Afraid of what?"
"How God must love Shabbat."
"Why do you say that?"
"Because if he doesn't let go of it, he'll bring down the entire building."
Bob thought that Larry was joking with him, but the expression on his face said otherwise. "Larry there's nothing to worry about. It's like the roof on a sports stadium that opens up to let the outside in. The building is so old; it's a real effort to open the roof. That's why the building shakes so much."
"You can say what you want. God is everywhere and he doesn't want us to know that Shabbat is over."
"OK Larry, but please let go of my leg."
The boy begrudgingly released his grip and the two of them watched the roof continue to slide open. "Do you see them?" said Bob pointing. "Three lone stars in the sky. Now we know that Shabbat is over." As the Rabbi and the advisors led the service, they lit the special Havdalah candle and said the brachot over the candle, the wine and the spices, and extinguished the candle in the wine, as was the tradition.
Bob thought about a customary gesture that had never struck him as special before. While the candle is held high over the heads of the congregation, each member is to catch the reflection of the light on their fingernails. The shadow that appears on the palm of the hand indicates the distinction between light and darkness. Suddenly, it took on a whole new meaning for Bob. Shabbat was his comfort zone. He knew what to do and what was expected of him and its passage left him warm inside and anxious for the next Shabbat. Leaving home to begin college would take him further from his comfort zone than he had ever been. Now the shadow on his palms represented what he knew versus what he did not. Larry was terrified about what he did not know until Bob explained it to him. Now Bob felt the same anxiety. Who would be there to dispel his anxiety?
Bob changed clothes before dinner and found a table with his friends. He looked around at the familiar faces and tried to take a mental picture of each of them to store securely in his memory. He knew he could not.
Before the dance, they moved to the presentations on the retreat's theme. They could hear the band setting up in the next room and that is where most of the attendees wanted to be. Some of the groups sang songs about Shalom. A few, like Bob's, did skits about the different roads you can take all of them, leading to peace. Several performed presentations that appeared to have nothing at all to do with the theme.
Larry's group was last. Each of them appeared to be armed with a piece of rolled up paper tablecloth. They must have taken them between Havdalah and dinner. Larry was making sure that everyone was standing in the right spot. Finally, he stepped up to the microphone carrying his own section of rolled up paper. "We declare the theme of this retreat as we return the Torah to the ark. We quote from the book of Proverbs: "For I have given you good teaching, do not forsake My Torah. It is a Tree of Life for those who grasp it, and its supporters are praiseworthy. Its ways are ways of pleasantness and all its paths are peace." As Larry quoted from Proverbs, three members of his group unfurled a huge banner that echoed in print what Larry had just said. The banner covered the entire front of the room and it appeared to have been written in many different print styles by each member of the team to save time. So large was the banner that it required a third member to stand at its center and support the slack.
"Duh," shouted one of the older boys in the audience. "We've been studying it for two days. We know what it says." The drone of giggles and guffaws filled the room. "Of course you do," said Larry. "But it's the word Shalom that we really want to look at." Two more of his group unrolled another part of the puzzle and stood in front of the word Shalom written in a bold hand in Hebrew.
"Larry probably did this," thought Bob.
"We want you to look very closely at how Shalom is written in another section of the Torah." Two more of his posse brought out an even larger version of the word shalom. "The Torah portion about Pinchas tells the story of how he brought peace during a time of plague and of how the Lord commends him though the shalom was the product of violent actions. In this parshat, the small vertical letter vav in the word shalom, is written as a broken letter." Larry unrolled and held up his piece of tablecloth for all to see. "You can see a small space separating the upper and lower parts of the letter. It's in every Torah scroll, and in the entire Torah this is the only place where a vav is written in this way. It is supposed to signify that there really is no peace when it is the product of hostility."
Bob could see the Rabbi watching Larry from the front row. He was leaning forward. He had never leaned forward that way during the skits. "Larry must really be onto something."
Larry continued, "In the Talmud, the broken vav is called the deferred or broken covenant. How do we mend the vav?" he asked everyone in the audience. There was silence. He tried again. "How do we mend the world?
"Tikkun Ha'olam," shouted a lone voice from the back of the room. Suddenly the crowd erupted in a loudly voiced litany of suggestions of what could be done by each one of them to repair the world. A huge smile brightened Larry's face. Bob realized that once again, the youngster had provided him with an answer he sought. Tikkun Ha'olam would be Bob's way of maintaining a connection while he was away at school. Larry's team was the clear winner of the skit contest. The Rabbi congratulated each of the boys and Larry in particular.
The dance started immediately after the contest. The band was so loud that it was nearly impossible to have a conversation in the cavernous room. Bob danced a few dances, but most of his evening was spent saying good-bye to the friends he had made over the years. Larry seemed to be on the dance floor all evening. He danced each dance with a different girl, about his age, who would not have given him a second look before his team won the contest. It was a perfect start for Larry and a bittersweet end for Bob.
Bob was late to the dinning room on Sunday morning. He stopped at the buffet table and stacked a large dinner plate high with every imaginable breakfast treat. Most of the tables were full. The table over which Larry presided had only one available chair. Larry caught his eye and Bob strode to the table. "I saved a seat for you," said Larry, pulling the high-backed chair away from the table.
"You didn't have to do that."
"I know," said Larry, "But I thought you might be late and I wanted to talk to you before we got on the bus."
Bob said down at the table feeling out of place with Larry's giggling friends. He put the plate down in front of him. "What do you want to talk about?" he asked, before shoveling a fork bearing a cross section of everything on his plate, into his mouth.
"Do you remember what you said to my parents in the parking lot before we left?" Bob scrunched up his face trying to remember. He shook his head "No" as he continued to chew.
"You told my parents that I was going to have the time of my life," said Larry.
Bob finished chewing. "And did you?"
"I sure did," he replied. Bob could see a tear forming in the corner of his eye. "I just feel bad that I have nothing to give you."
"No, you gave me more that you'll ever know. You answered a question that has been bothering me for weeks and I'm sure you didn't even realize it."
"Do you mean the one about Tikkun Ha'olam?"
"How did you know?"
"I didn't, but it's the answer to so many questions that it was a logical explanation." This time Larry held out his hand for Bob to shake.
"You're a pretty remarkable young man," said Bob.
"You're pretty cool yourself, noted Larry. "Would you mind if I wrote to you while you're away at school?"
"I'd be hurt if you didn't.
With glasses of orange juice, Larry and Bob toasted each other. After the retreat, each boy went his separate way, but each moved in the same direction. Despite their promises, that was the last time Bob and Larry ever saw each other. While it bothered Bob, he concluded that it was meant to be that way. Still, he never forgot what Larry had taught him. Tikkun Ha'olam was his mantra throughout college and it kept him focused throughout a host of conflicts and temptations. At every opportunity, he toiled to fix the broken vav by investing his time and energy where he thought it would do the most good. In time, Bob married and started a family. He imbued his children with the same courage to heal the world that he had learned from Larry.
When Bob's children were grown and had moved out of his home, it was just Bob and his wife. As he began his retirement, he looked forward to having more time for Tikkun Ha'olam. He filled his days and evenings with a variety of activities.
Several days each week, he drove around his community delivering meals to senior citizens who were homebound and not as lucky as himself. He drove and a volunteer from a local synagogue delivered each meal to its recipient. It was the start of a new school year and Bob was expecting a new partner. Before loading the meals into his car, he checked with the Coordinator and was directed to a young man sitting alone against the wall. A mop of straw-colored hair escaped from beneath his baseball cap.
Bob approached him and held out his hand. "I guess we're going to be partners," he said. "My name is Bob Feldman."
The adolescent sprang to his feet and thrust out his own hand in return. "I'm Rickey Isaacs."
"Isaacs? It's not an unusual name. I used to know someone named Isaacs a long time ago. What is your grandfather's name?
"My mom's dad is named Benjamin and my dad's father was Jonathan," said Rickey.
"I guess not," replied Bob. "Is this your first meal run?"
"Yes and I'm really excited about it. My grandpa always told me to give back more than I get and this seemed like a good place to start. He taught me all about Tikkun Ha'olam."
"He sounds like he is a wise man."
"I thought so. He died when I was very young. I don't think my dad agreed."
"I'm sorry. Then you and your dad didn't try to help heal the world?"
"No, he and my mom were always too busy."
"I guess it's time to get started."
Rickey accompanied Bob to the kitchen to collect the meals that they were scheduled to deliver. Along the way, Bob asked, "Rickey, is that short for Richard?"
Rickey laughed. "No one in my family ever went by their full names. For instance, the grandfather I mentioned before, his full name was Jonathan Lawrence Isaacs. Too many letters he used to complain. I just called him Papa Larry."
Bob stopped abruptly. "Your grandfather, the one who taught you about Tikkun Ha'olam was Larry Isaacs!" exclaimed Bob. Rickey nodded. "He's the Isaacs I was looking for. I can't begin to tell you how indebted I am to your Papa Larry." Bob spun Rickey around, put both hands on his shoulders and looked deep into the youngster's eyes. "Did he ever tell you about the broken vav?"
"All the time," said Rickey, a tear falling from the corner of one of his eyes.
A tear rolled across Bob's cheek as well. "Then we have lots to talk about!"
That was the start of their first delivery and for all I know, to this day, they are still delivering. Mending the broken vav, one life at a time.
from the January 2010 Edition of the Jewish Magazine