One of the most embarrassing moments of my rabbinical career happened early in my first year on the job. From my bar mitzvah onwards, I had seldom read from the Torah. When I was appointed rabbi, I found myself spending hours every week preparing the Torah reading. I’m still not great at leining, as our regular congregants can attest, but I’m better than I was at the beginning. Some weeks, however, my efforts at preparation were somewhat less than adequate.

As I began reading the portion of Pinchas that first time, I noticed a “mistake” in the Torah scroll. In the word shalom, the last word of the third verse, there was an unmistakable crack in the letter vav. The verse in question is describing the reward of priesthood that G‑d was giving to Pinchas for defending G‑d’s honor and taking His vengeance on those committing acts of public immorality: “I hereby give him My covenant of shalom—peace.”1

An authentic Torah scroll is handwritten with ink on parchment, an inherently unstable media. Fading and cracking of the letters is not uncommon. Obviously, one never wants to find a mistake in a Torah, but you have to admit it is kind of exciting when it happens. When we find a cracked or missing letter in a Torah, we stop reading from it, wrap it up again with its belt on the outside, return it immediately to the ark and replace it with another scroll.

After explaining to the assembled crowd why we’d interrupted the reading, I rolled the second Torah to the same place, only to find, to my great embarrassment, that the new scroll had the identical break, in the same letter of the same word. I quickly realized that rather than being a “mistake” in the Torah, it was deliberately written like that, and I’d incorrectly proclaimed a Torah as unkosher.

The Talmud2 points out that without the letter vav, the word reads shalem: “unblemished” or “whole.” Thus the verse alludes to the law that kohanim who serve in the Temple must be physically whole.

Other commentators offer alternative explanations. Baal HaTurim (Rabbi Yaakov ben Asher of Spain, 1269–1343) suggests that the broken vav now looks like a yud, with the numerical value of 10, and is a reference to the 10 gifts of support that priests would receive from their fellow Jews. He also reminds us that the name of the prophet Elijah, who is said to be an incarnation of Pinchas, is commonly spelled with a missing vav. This vav is “held in trust” until Pinchas/Elijah will fulfill his purpose and herald the arrival of Moshiach, whereupon both “peace” and “perfection” will reign.

Netziv (Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehudah Berlin of Volozhin, 1816–1893) has a different take on the broken letter. He speculates that the broken “peace” in the verse is a negative reflection on Pinchas. In our text Pinchas comes off as a hero, willing to risk life and limb to defend G‑d’s honor. However, later, when Michah builds an idol3—and Pinchas, as the then-leader of the nation, could have been expected to protest—he was more reticent.

There are many other traditions regarding this vav, obviously none of which I had heard before making a premature call about the kashrut of a perfect Torah scroll. However, one lesson that I have taken from the whole embarrassing situation is to think twice before concluding that someone or something else is flawed.

We tend to assume that we are personally “whole” and “at peace,” and that those with whom we disagree are automatically in the wrong. But before making a public spectacle of oneself by proclaiming oneself perfect and others as damaged goods, take a dose of perspective and ask yourself if it’s not just possible that your uncharitable assumptions might not just be floundering on a foundation of ignorance.