Shemini: The Ferris Wheel of Life

By Ilana Grinblat

Published April 07, 2010.
  • Print
  • Share Share

The other day, my son Jeremy discovered an unopened birthday present in his closet. It was a Kinex Ferris wheel building set. We took out all parts, and I was instantly overwhelmed. The game had 25 pages of assembly instructions! Despite my reservations, we started putting it together. The process was inordinately complicated. Although the box said it was for ages seven and up, I wondered why I, being three decades older than that, was having such difficulty figuring it out. Maybe I needed a Ph.D. in engineering.

We kept going step by step, and we became hooked. Bath-time came and went; bedtime passed, but we couldn’t stop. Even though it took all evening (and much of the next day), Jeremy was completely engaged throughout — helping to find each piece that we needed and snap them in. I must admit, it was the most fun we’d had in a long time.

I wondered why this was so much fun. What about this game so captivated our energies?

Like the center of a Ferris wheel, this week’s Torah portion is smack in the middle of the Torah. The parasha is from Vayikra (Leviticus), the central book of the Torah, and the portion called Shemini (which means eighth) contains both the central words and the central letter of the Torah. The ancient rabbis actually counted the letters of the Torah (which must have taken an awfully long time) and determined which was the middle letter of the Torah.

The letter is a vav — in the middle of the word gachon, which means belly. The context is the laws of keeping kosher, where God instructed Moses and Aaron to tell the people not to eat any animal which crawls on its belly. So, that letter is the belly button of the Torah, literally!

In the Torah scroll, this vav is written bigger than the others (with the ancient equivalent of a larger font) to draw attention to it. What difference does it make? Why did the rabbis bother with this tedious, time consuming exercise?

Like a spoke in a wheel, the letter vav is a straight line, extending vertically. When used as a prefix, it means “and,” and therefore is very common in the Torah. In fact, some special Torahs are written so that almost every column begins with the letter vav. These Vav Torahs are especially expensive because they’re tricky for scribes to write. Again, why is this innocuous, little letter so significant?

The vav is important for the same reason that the Kinex set was so much fun. Since vav means “and,” it highlights the connections between words or ideas. Rather than operating in isolation, the words are bound together. As the vav’s vertical line bridges between above and below, it shows that heaven and earth (or the human and divine realms) are inextricably linked. Each of us is connected to each other, and we are all linked to God. Therefore, the vav embodies the essence of Torah. (Indeed, the laws of Kashrut are intended to remind us of our connections to animals, to fellow Jews worldwide who follow these practices, and to God.)

Likewise, the Kinex game was fun because we enjoyed discovering how these seeming isolated parts fit together into a larger whole. People love puzzles of all kinds not only for intellectual stimulation but also because they reflect the spiritual essence of the world in which we live. Like Lego pieces, none of us is alone. We are all part of a web of intricate links to each other, to all living things, and to our Creator.

It all “Kinex.” If we understand this truth, then we comprehend the entire Torah.

Rabbi Ilana Grinblat teaches rabbinic literature at the American Jewish University’s Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband and their two young children.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • "I thought I was the only Jew on a Harley Davidson, but I was wrong." — Gil Paul, member of the Hillel's Angels. http://jd.fo/g4cjH
  • “This is a dangerous region, even for people who don’t live there and say, merely express the mildest of concern about the humanitarian tragedy of civilians who have nothing to do with the warring factions, only to catch a rash of *** (bleeped) from everyone who went to your bar mitzvah! Statute of limitations! Look, a $50 savings bond does not buy you a lifetime of criticism.”
  • That sound you hear? That's your childhood going up in smoke.
  • "My husband has been offered a terrific new job in a decent-sized Midwestern city. This is mostly great, except for the fact that we will have to leave our beloved NYC, where one can feel Jewish without trying very hard. He is half-Jewish and was raised with a fair amount of Judaism and respect for our tradition though ultimately he doesn’t feel Jewish in that Larry David sort of way like I do. So, he thinks I am nuts for hesitating to move to this new essentially Jew-less city. Oh, did I mention I am pregnant? Seesaw, this concern of mine is real, right? There is something to being surrounded by Jews, no? What should we do?"
  • "Orwell described the cliches of politics as 'packets of aspirin ready at the elbow.' Israel's 'right to defense' is a harder narcotic."
  • From Gene Simmons to Pink — Meet the Jews who rock:
  • The images, which have since been deleted, were captioned: “Israel is the last frontier of the free world."
  • As J Street backs Israel's operation in Gaza, does it risk losing grassroots support?
  • What Thomas Aquinas might say about #Hamas' tunnels:
  • The Jewish bachelorette has spoken.
  • "When it comes to Brenda Turtle, I ask you: What do you expect of a woman repressed all her life who suddenly finds herself free to explore? We can sit and pass judgment, especially when many of us just simply “got over” own sexual repression. But we are obliged to at least acknowledge that this problem is very, very real, and that complete gender segregation breeds sexual repression and unhealthy attitudes toward female sexuality."
  • "Everybody is proud of the resistance. No matter how many people, including myself, disapprove of or even hate Hamas and its ideology, every single person in Gaza is proud of the resistance." Part 2 of Walid Abuzaid's on-the-ground account of life in #Gaza:
  • After years in storage, Toronto’s iconic red-and-white "Sam the Record Man" sign, complete with spinning discs, will return to public view near its original downtown perch. The sign came to symbolize one of Canada’s most storied and successful Jewish family businesses.
  • Is $4,000 too much to ask for a non-member to be buried in a synagogue cemetery?
  • "Let’s not fall into the simplistic us/them dichotomy of 'we were just minding our business when they started firing rockets at us.' We were not just minding our business. We were building settlements, manning checkpoints, and filling jails." What do you think?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.