Adrian A. Durlester

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Random Musings Before Shabbat-Shemini 5763

Belly of the Beast

Well, hey there. We're at that favorite parasha of mine. You know. The one with those two favorite barbequed boys, Nadav and Avihu. Well, if you're looking for more Nadav and Avihu this year, you'll have to go back and look at some of my earlier Shemini musings like 5762/5768's Crispy Critters, 5761's Lessons from Our Students, or 5760's Calm in a Crisis.

This year, I'm going to center on something else. And the choice of "center" is deliberate. In Vayikra 11:42 we come across an unusual orthographic occurrence. It's one of four large letters found in the Torah. In this case, the large letter is a device used by the Masoretic scribes to indicate a location of interest. (It should be noted that this large letter does not appear in the Leningrad Codex but is found in other source versions.)

It's an enlarged vav in 11:42, the second letter in the word gimel-khet-vav-nun sofit, the word gakhon. It serves as a marker for the exact center of the Torah in terms of actual letter count. A curiosity, of the kind that is often found in the many Masoretic notes found in the margins of the transmitted manuscripts and printed texts of the Torah and Tanakh.

What's even more interesting to me than the simple numerical location is the word that happens to be at this location-gakhon. It means "belly," referring specifically to the belly of a reptile or snake. It appears only one other place in the Torah, in Genesis 3:14, when Gd informs the snake of Its punishment for persuading Eve to eat of the fruit, that it will crawl On its belly from now on. (One wonders how the snake did get around prior to that.)

Our Torah being full of odd coincidences of words, numerical and other mystical linkages which appear to be more than random, we must ask why this particular word winds up where it does - that the word "belly" lies at the center of the Torah as the "belly" is somewhat centrally located on human beings and many other animals in terms of their anatomy. Yet it is not human or mammalian belly being referred to. It is the underside of the snake.

The underside of the snake is at the center of the Torah? What could this possibly mean?

Now, our parasha also contains another halfway point in the Torah, at verse 10:10. It is the middle of the Torah by words, and comes, most appropriately, between two occurrences of the word dalet-resh-shin, darash, meaning "to inquire" and which has now become the Hebrew term for exegesis of the Torah. No difficulty there. There, at the center of the Torah in words, as a hint that it is our job to seek and inquire of the Torah.

(The middle of the Torah in terms of verses came in parashat Tzav, in 8:8. Interestingly, verse 8 speaks of the Urim and Thummim, believed to have been two different colored stones for divining the will of Gd. So this "middle" of the Torah is connected to two other things that represent two halves, two options, two possibilities. From this center one can go forward or back.)

Yet the letter-numerical center is harder to interpret. It's easy to posit possible interpretations of "belly" being at the center of the Torah in terms of human or mammalian belly. It is indeed somewhat of an anatomical center. In the ancient world, it may have been thought of as we now might think of the heart or head.

It's also easy to connect belly with having to eat, and thus sustenance. And we know that Torah is kemach, sustenance. Im ein Torah, ein kemach. If there is no Torah, there is no sustenance.

It's a little more difficult to posit why the letter-numerical center of the Torah is like the underside of a snake. It does make some sense that there is a connection from the center of the Torah to the creation story near the beginning (Gen 3:14). Beyond that, what sense can we make of it?

Some might argue, why try and make sense of it at all? It's merely a statistic, a coincidence. Maybe so. Maybe not. And it's precisely because I'm unsure about this that I want to inquire and seek explanations.

Here's one possible thought. Think back to my musing from two weeks back, for parashat Vayikra, Kol Cheilev. I wrote:

"A relationship with Gd is not an easy thing. It is certainly a holy thing, but not a relationship one can have without recognizing that things physical, and not just spiritual need be involved. (Now there's a great argument for observing the laws of kashrut.) Gd needs not just our hearts and our minds, but our bodies, too. And once our bodies are involved, we're in the realm of potentially "icky" things, of having to get our hands dirty."

Maybe that sometimes means crawling on our bellies?

And last week, for parashat Tzav, I wrote of the need to relate to Torah on our own human level. I spoke of how much harder that can be when we elevate it too high above us. If, at its center, the Torah is the belly of a snake, then that is surely more possible than if, at its center, were something we viewed as being on a level far above our own.

I'm not wholly satisfied with any of these explanations. So I'll keep digging, and encourage all of you to do so as well.

In the meantime, my belly is calling...telling me it's time to ingest some kemach of the food kind. After all, Im ein kemach, ein Torah (If there is no sustenance, then there is no Torah.)

And once I've done that, it's back to discovering what's in the belly of the beast of Torah.

Shabbat Shalom,


© 2003 by Adrian A. Durlester

Some Other Musings on the same parasha

Shemini 5762-Crispy Critters
Shemini 5761-Lessons From Our Students
Shemini 5760-Calm in a Crisis
Shemini 5759-Porking Out

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