Tipping Past the Halfway Point

During these Covid times, in my household, we've embraced every possible excuse for a celebration... including attempting to mark not only birthdays but also half-birthdays! Elisha's half-birthday is up next; right now he's closer to his 8th birthday, but in a few weeks, he'll pass the halfway point and tip closer to his 9th. Segmented in this way, the two halves of each year take on different characters, much like the two halves of a football game, with the halfway mark acting as a fulcrum, tipping us from "beginning" to "ending."

During these Covid times, in my household, we've embraced every possible excuse for a celebration... including attempting to mark not only birthdays but also half-birthdays! Elisha's half-birthday is up next; right now he's closer to his 8th birthday, but in a few weeks, he'll pass the halfway point and tip closer to his 9th. Segmented in this way, the two halves of each year take on different characters, much like the two halves of a football game, with the halfway mark acting as a fulcrum, tipping us from "beginning" to "ending."

This week, as we read Parashat Shemini in our Torah cycle, we will similarly cross the halfway mark of our Torah-reading year. If you look carefully at the image below, you may even be able to spot the slightly enlarged "vav" in the word "gachon" (if you're searching, it's about halfway down the photo, just left of center). This is the Hebrew letter that the rabbis of the Talmud identified as the middle letter of the Torah, claiming (in Tractate Soferim 9:2) that "the number of letters from the beginning of the Pentateuch to the vav of gachon equals the number from the vav to the end."

This particular "vav" is an interesting hinge. The letter is a single pen-stroke: a vertical line written enlarged and standing upright. Furthermore, the word in which it appears -- gachon -- means "belly" and echoes with the resonance of the punishment of the serpent in the Garden of Eden story: "Then the Lord God said to the serpent, 'Because you did this, More cursed shall you be than all cattle and all the wild beasts: on your belly shall you crawl (al g'chon'cha teilech) and dirt shall you eat all the days of your life'" (Genesis 3:14). Back in our parasha in Leviticus, this word comes in the context of a section of kashrut laws, in a command to the Israelites not to eat creatures who crawl on their bellies.

The interpretations are just begging to be written! Perhaps the fulcrum of the Torah -- the vav that serves as a hinge-point between the first half and the second half of our sacred text -- is here precisely to recall the creation story and to remind us that as human beings, we can do better than be tempted to act on our basest instincts. We must not eat belly-crawlers or snakes because we don't want to be like them; as humans, we are meant to stand upright, like the vav, both literally and ethically.

As this pandemic time ticks on, it's easy to feel stuck in the slog of it all. But this image -- of the middle letter of Torah acting as a fulcrum, dividing the first half from the second half -- feels helpful to me this week as we strive to locate ourselves. This week, we are passing the mid-point of Torah, and (I believe) we are already past the mid-point of this pandemic. Articles on "hitting a wall" and "late-stage pandemic burnout" abound, but with the help of this framework, we can locate ourselves... already having passed the halfway point and coming up out of the tunnel.

As we continue this uphill climb, we will be looking for more and more ways to support one another in remaining upright. Plans are in the works now for some outdoor spring events that will constitute a "soft" re-opening of our in-person community. Kavana partners are generating so much energy around social justice initiatives, especially in the JEDI realm (that is, justice, equity, diversity, and inclusivity).

Happy half-Torah to us all (and happy almost-half-birthday to Elisha). Together, we can power through this second half, upright and strong, like the vav of gachon that marks the halfway point of our journey through Torah.

Warmly,

Rabbi Rachel Nussbaum