Sometime around the year 500CE, a new type of scholar arose who assumed responsibility for preserving, homogenizing, and transmitting the biblical text. Known as the Masorites — either from the Hebrew for “to bind” or “to hand down” — it was these scribes who added the vowels and trope marks to the text we have today. They also systematized the writing of Torah, including the “mistake” we see in Parashat Pinchas.
Notice the broken vav in the word shalom.
God promises Pinchas, a zealot who took it upon himself to mete out justice upon idolators, His “brit shalom” or “covenant of peace.” Scholars throughout time have struggled with this text, noting that ours is not a tradition where we believe the ends justify the means. The Jerusalem Talmud reports that Pinchas acted against the will of the wise men: “Rabbi Yuda said: ‘They desired to excommunicate him.’” The Kotzker Rebbe taught that it was this action that prevented him from being Moses’ successor. And the Masorites go as far as to break the vav, perhaps symbolizing either a broken trust or a broken man.
Rabbi Jacob ben Asher, the B’al HaTurim goes futher. The broken vav is our clue that Pinchas is actually Eliyahu Hanavi, Elijah the prophet. They both acted zealously for God, and Eliyahu can be spelled with or without the vav (note the difference between 1 and 2 Kings). Who else can be spelled with or without a vav? Jacob the patriarch, as we see in Leviticus 26. According to B’a HaTurim, Jacob required Elijah’s vav as a security deposit until such time as he hearlds the coming of the messiah in fulfillment of God’s promise. When that happens, and only then, Elijah — Pinchas — can have his vav back.
Jacob the trickster knew better than to trust a zealot. Neither should we.