Rabbi Fern Feldman

The big vav in Parshat Shemini–Cutting across all categories of being

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In Parshat Shemini, Leviticus 11:42, the Torah tells us that we shouldn’t eat “Kol haholech al gachon”, “any creature that crawls on its belly”. The word for belly, gachon is spelled with one letter much larger than the others—it has a big vav. This is one of 16 or more letters in Torah (depending on the tradition of the scribe) that are written larger or smaller than the rest.
Whenever we see one of these letters, we have to wonder what the message is. We can start by realizing that the Torah is trying to get us to pay attention to the topic at hand— the large vav in the word for belly points to the importance of being mindful of what we put in our bellies. And especially when we are talking about animals, knowing that we cannot eat every animal helps us be aware that not everything in creation is here for our benefit as humans—as Maimonides teaches, every being has its own inherent worth.
But this particular large letter is more crucial than most. The Talmud (Kiddushin 30) tells us this vav is middle letter of the Torah—that is, it is the very center of the whole Torah. So perhaps we are to learn that what we put in our bellies is central, literally. And understanding that not everything is here just for us, means that we are not the center of the universe. (In fact, the letter vav is the center.)
However, when one actually counts the letters of Torah, this vav is close to 5,000 letters off from center. There are various explanations of why that is–[the Talmud records a conversation between two sages who say they can’t figure it out because they don’t know enough grammar to tell when certain letters should be included or not but that wouldn’t account for as big difference as there is. Some say our vav is middle letter of the Torah if you spell out each letter’s name, and then count those letters.] But in any case, it seems this teaching is there to tell us something other than its literal meaning —but what?
The tradition finds it important to tell us this letter vav in the word “belly” is the belly of the Torah.
If Torah has a belly, it is a creature. We already tend to think of Torah as alive– the book of Proverbs, and our liturgy, calls Torah the Tree of Life. The blessing we say after Torah reading gives thanks for a Torah of truth, and parallels it with eternal life being planted within us. The rollers that the Torah scroll is wrapped around are called atzei chaim, trees of life. From this, we get the idea that the Torah is a dynamic living organism, a plant. But in addition, the Torah’s parchment is animal hide. The Torah could be called a living animal too—an animal with a belly in its middle. Like an animal, it grows, loves and is loved. So we can see the Torah as both plant and animal.
But the teaching we are looking at here is coming from the actual physical letter vav, in it being made bigger than the rest. Torah ink, made partially from soot, or carbon, which by tradition can be produced either from the burning of plant or animal matter, is not long-lasting enough without the addition of something we consider inorganic, either iron or copper. This inorganic matter, this ink, is teaching us something. It is the very physicality of the letter, not the meaning alone, which gives over the teaching. The vav, by being bigger than the other letters, is communicating with us. The letter is not there just to represent some meaning that corresponds to it, it is teaching us something through its material presence. The nonrepresentational existence, in itself, of the letter vav teaches we humans. And it is teaching us that matter has agency. The vav is reminding us that the Torah is material. Not only does it have a body, and a belly, but its body is made of animal, vegetable, and mineral. And of all of those, the one that speaks to us the most directly is the ink, the mineral.
In the Torah’s existence as animal, vegetable and mineral, it crosses what we think of as the fixed boundaries between different types of created beings. This undoes the separations that are so common in Jewish thought, between four different domains: the domem, or silent, that is, minerals; the tzomeach, or sprouting, that is, plants; the chai, or living, that is, animals; and lastly the m’daber or speaking, that is, in this system, the human. These four categories are often seen as a hierarchy of levels of awareness, with increasing sacredness and value, placing the speaking ones, ostensibly just the humans, at the pinnacle of the system. But the Torah is a living entity, and its very being cuts across all categories of being. When carbon and iron, tree and animal make one living entity, known as Torah, and it speaks to us, when we pick the Torah up in our arms, touch it, kiss it, bless it, read from it, we are drawn into its reality, we enter the realm of its being. We then can become much larger than our individual selves, aware of the multiple worlds that are within and around us, and we become capable of experiencing the interconnectedness, the woven-ness-into-being that is the source of all, and is all.

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