In the Middle – Parshat Shmini 5777
I like to find symmetry in life. Symmetry in the sense that there’s balance between what came before and what will come after. In other words, I feel most confident when I know where I’ve been and how far I have to go. On my morning walks, I pace myself by remembering where the middle of the walk is. Knowing I have two miles down and two to go gives me tremendous energy to keep moving. When you’re pregnant, reaching the 20-week mark is a relief to know that you’re halfway done. Flying with kids, I’m always thrilled to get to the halfway point of the flight to reassure myself that we’ve made it through to that point without a major meltdown (if in fact we have). Similarly, on a long car ride, the halfway point is a good indicator and helpful way to answer “How much longer?” and “Are we there yet?” Marking milestones is a part of moving forward. Whether it’s the milestone of a birthday, years passed since a historic event in your life, or looking forward to one coming up, counting and marking life is what we do.
The Torah also counts certain milestones. When the Torah marks how far from Egypt the Israelites have traveled, it denotes not just the story of the present journey, but what’s yet to come and what ground they’ve covered. In Parshat Shmini, the Torah reading for this week, we cover another Torah milestone. The parshah begins with the words, “On the eighth day,” after the priests had been installed. The text picks up with the narrative of creating a holy leadership team of Aaron and his sons, who unfortunately make an offering without the appropriate directions or intentions and end up losing their lives. Following this tragic story are the laws for making time holy with sacrifices and laws for making our bodies holy by following kashrut.
Interestingly, chapter 10, verse 16 is commonly regarded as the middle of the Torah. It begins, “Then Moses inquired about the goat of the purification offering.” Specifically, the word darash (inquired) is said to be the word directly in the middle of the whole Torah. Clearly, since we are a people of perpetual learning and inquiry, there is significance in this middle marking, this halfway point. Emet v’Emunah, which is the Statement of Principles created by several organizations within the Conservative movement, teaches, “The ideal Jew is not so much a learned Jew as a learning Jew.” That is to say the essence of the Torah – study and inquiry – is found in this central word of its body.
The ideal Jew is not so much a learned Jew as a learning Jew.
I find comfort in this reminder that what sets Judaism apart is a constant, unfailing curiosity. After thousands of years of interpretations, we’re left with more questions now than ever before, which is kind of the point. The middle brings meaning, but in a “glass half-full or half-empty” kind of way. We’re halfway there, but we still have a long way to go. Shabbat shalom.