D’var Torah, Sh’mini II: A River Runs Through It
by Billy Dreskin
This past summer, my son spent seven theatrical weeks at Northwestern University’s National High School Institute in Chicago. Our family arrived only to attend Aiden’s final performance, but we got to see a bit of “Chi-town” along the way. The most impressive site we encountered (other than my son’s outstanding presentation, of course) was the Chicago River, part of whose 156 miles run through the middle of downtown. It is majestic on its own merits, but my awe of this river was amplified when I learned that in the nineteenth century, the flow of its waters was completely reversed. Unable to fathom how such a thing could even be possible, yet knowing that human will and determination produces many surprising and amazing results, I watched thirty thousand rubber duckies “race” (that is, “float”) in the river’s altered current to raise money for Illinois’ Special Olympics.
There are 304,805 letters in the Five Books of the Torah. These letters are employed to form 79,847 words. According to the Babylonian Talmud (Kiddushin 30a), the precise middle letter of the Torah occurs in a verse from this week’s parashah (Leviticus 11:42), “You shall not eat, among all things that swarm upon the earth, anything that crawls on its belly, or anything that walks on fours, or anything that has many legs; for they are an abomination.” The middle Hebrew letter in the Torah is the vav in the middle of the word gachon, belly”.
How ironic is that? The middle letter of the Torah appears in a word that refers to the middle of the human body?
Middles often escape renown. It’s typically the beginnings and endings of things that claim our attention: grand openings and liquidations, hirings and firings, debuts and denouements, births and deaths. These are the moments that are splashy, that grab us. But when we think about it, the high points in our lives (and the low ones, too) last only a moment, and we live most of our days in the “middles.” Wedding ceremonies give way to commutes and mortgages, baby namings to diaper changes and carpools, b’nei mitzvah celebrations to homework and endless requests to turn down the music.
Our goals may seem to be found in life’s most dramatic moments: finished projects, award ceremonies, bonus checks. But the people who sense the greatest wholeness in their lives are those who find fulfillment in the events that take place when the spotlights are turned elsewhere.
Leviticus is not the most exciting of books in the Torah, and the laws of kashrut are less so. But Leviticus is about life’s middles. And that’s where you and I spend most of our time. What we eat is unlikely to become a Hollywood blockbuster, but if we want to stay healthy, or enjoy some time with family or friends, dining becomes an important topic.
An old friend once told me he never wanted to discuss what power tool I used to repair something that had broken in my house. He was only interested in discussing philosophy and politics. His perspective was wrong. There may be nothing more important than how we manage the seemingly minor details of our lives. Things break and they need repair. It is the nature of life—in fact, of the universe. And showing up for life’s minor details is just as important as solving the great issues of our time.
Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai penned a story1 that eloquently expresses not only the beauty of our mundane lives, but the downright messianic possibilities they present:
Once, I sat on the steps by a gate at David’s Tower, and placed my two heavy baskets at my side. A group of tourists was standing around their guide and I became their target marker. “You see that man with the baskets? Just to the right of his head, there’s an arch from the Roman period. Just to the right of his head.”
“But he’s moving, he’s moving!”
I said to myself: Redemption will come only if their guide tells them, “You see that arch from the Roman period? It’s not important. But next to it, left and down a bit, there sits a man who’s bought fruit and vegetables for his family.”
I want only the best for my son. So as much as I love to see him shine in a solo moment onstage, nothing makes me happier than to watch him doing ensemble work within a show, one of many, comfortably doing his work, and thoroughly enjoying himself in the middle of his cast and friends. This is where life is lived, and I love seeing him there.
Two verses after the Torah’s middle letter appears, we encounter nothing less than the main point of Torah, the main point of Jewish life, and the main point of all life: “For I the Eternal am your God: you shall sanctify yourselves and be holy, for I am holy” (Leviticus 11:44). We have been taught that holiness—the point of it all—can be present in the everyday actions of our lives. Whatever it is that we find ourselves doing—no matter how common, how unremarkable—it is there that God may be found, and there that we are to prepare ourselves to encounter nothing less than the Creator of the universe.
When I’m in the sanctuary at our temple and I overhear someone telling a child, “Now behave yourself … you’re in temple,” I think, “Better to tell them, ‘Behave yourself … you’re in the world.’ ”
This parashah reminds me of the Havdalah ceremony at the conclusion of Shabbat, and its invitation that we make distinctions between what is holy and what isn’t. It’s tricky to get this right. Looking at the reflection of the Havdalah candle on our fingernails or its shadow dancing on our palms, we can miss the hands themselves. The greatest tools given us by our Creator, our hands, demonstrate by how we use them (by what we choose to handle or not, by whom we choose to embrace or not) where we have found life’s holiness. Parashat Sh’mini, and itsvav in the middle of a “belly,” teaches us the importance to look for holiness away from the fuss of what everybody else is looking at, and not to miss the beauty of the quiet gifts that life brings our way.
You may be interested to know that across the centuries, at least until modern printing techniques, there were variant editions of the Torah. The calculations performed in the Talmud do not precisely match the most accurate texts that have come down to us today. For example, Dr. Jeffrey H. Tigay2 points out that in more accurate Torah texts like the Koren Jerusalem Bible, “the middle letter appears 4830 letters earlier, in Leviticus 8:28.”
1. Yehuda Amichai, “Tourists,” Poems of Jerusalem: A Bilingual Edition (Tel Aviv: Schocken Publishing, 1987), pp. 176–177
2. Jeffrey H. Tigay, “The Bible ‘Codes’: A Textual Perspective,”, University of Pennsylvania, 1999, http://www.sas.upenn.edu/~jtigay/codetext.html
Billy Dreskin is a rabbi at Woodlands Community Temple near White Plains, New York. You can contact him at RabbiBillyDreskin@gmail.com.