One question I often get when we open the Torah is “how many letters are there in the scroll?” There is a rabbinic teaching that there are 600,000 letters in the Torah, one for each of the Israelites who stood at Sinai to receive it. This may be a lovely image, but it doesn’t reflect an accurate word count. While there are different theories based on different versions of the Torah text, modern scholarship suggests that there are 304,805 letters forming 79,847 words. This week’s parasha falls exactly in the middle of them.
According to some rabbis (Kiddushin 30a), the middle letter of the Torah is the vav in the middle of the word gahon. This vav is written larger than most of the letters in the Torah. We would think that this word, on which the entire Torah hinges, would be a significant one. In fact, the word means, “belly,” as in, “You shall not eat . . . anything that crawls on its belly” (Lev. 11:42).
This is not to say that this is not an exciting Torah portion, at least in terms of the book of Leviticus. In parashat Shmini, we have a peak experience of the priestly cult—the ordination of Aaron and his sons. We also have one of its greatest tragedies—the death of Aaron’s sons for offering “strange fire” to God.
But the middle letter of the Torah, in the middle of a word that literally means “middle,” does not occur within one of these episodes. It is not within a section about how the priests approach the holy of holies—which is a privilege only a few people know, at specified times and in particular places. Rather, it appears in a long list of rules about how we eat, something everyone does, every single day.
Rabbi Billy Dreskin writes of this peculiarity: “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 better pivot point for the Torah than laws that govern one of our most basic human functions. It serves as a reminder that the pursuit of holiness is not limited to the times and spaces that are designated as holy. Rather, in a world without a Tabernacle, or a Temple, or an Ark of the Covenant, we are called to pursue holiness everywhere and all the time. We are called to strive for holiness in how we eat, how we dress, and how we interact with the world. We are called upon to find holiness “in the middle.”
Rabbi Bradley Artson suggests that kashrut is “the elementary school in which we remember that our lives are lived in covenant with God, and we make the values of our faith visible through our deeds and priorities” (Artson 182). Even if we reject kashrut, we might still strive for holiness while we eat, when we are mindful of what we put into our bodies and where it came from. We elevate this mundane act to a sacred one when we say a blessing over our food, and when our awareness of, and gratitude for, our own blessings drives us to reach out to feed those who have less.
We elevate eating to a sacred act when we make our meals a time for human interaction, an opportunity to pursue holiness through our speech. Rabbi Israel Salanter points out that, while pork is only forbidden twice in the Torah, everyone knows that it is prohibited, while we often forget that we are commanded many more times to refrain from negative speech (Etz Chayim 638). Talking, something some of us may do more often than we eat, is another mundane action that we can make holy by paying attention.
One rabbi suggests that the vav in the word gahon is written larger as a reminder that, unlike the slithering creatures we are forbidden to eat, we are a species that stands up straight. The enlarged vav reminds to us to walk upright, not only physically—our evolutionary birthright—but spiritually, when we live in a upright way, and when we stand up for what we believe in (Etz Chayim 642).
Rabbi Dreskin points out that: “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.”
Even the most mundane actions can take on a huge significance, when we use them as an opportunity to encounter God. However, challenging ourselves to live in a way in which we can walk upright, proud of who we are and how we live, in relationship with God and each other, can be far more complex than following a set of levitical rules.
Within our everyday pursuits, we often find ourselves stuck in the middle, between who we are and who we want to be, what we currently do, and what we feel is the right thing to do. But this does not mean we are failures. It only means that we are still moving, still growing, still striving to be better than we are. It means that we are in the middle.
While the middle letter of the Torah is said to be in the word gahon, there are those that say that the middle word of the Torah is actually a chapter earlier, the word doresh (Lev. 10:16). In modern Hebrew parlance, this verb is used for interpreting the Torah, butit literally means to inquire and to seek answers, something that, no matter how smart we are, or how much we learn, we will always be only in the middle of doing.
We may not pursue holiness in the same way that our ancestors did, but we are still driven by the same vision that they were, to live life in a holy way, and to seek out opportunities for sacred encounter, not only in the beginnings and endings, or in the peaks and valleys, but right here, in the middle.