Shemini: The Ferris Wheel of Life
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.