When taking on a big project or undergoing a long journey, it’s often too overwhelming to think about the totality of the journey. Let’s take you Matthew as an example; almost a year ago you started preparing to become a Bar mitzvah. You had an idea of how much you needed to learn but we broke it down into sections for you to master. First learning the trope, the tune for the Haftorah, then the haftorah and its blessings, then the Torah trope and the Torah and its blessings, and finally parts of the prayer service. And as this morning’s service showed – all of the parts of that journey came together for a glorious moment of transformation as you became in the eyes of your community, the newest responsible member of the Jewish people.
We do the same thing for many other kinds of long journeys – on a road trip we count the hours and the miles noting how much is behind us and how much is ahead of us. There’s even a website that calculates it for you. A few years ago when I took the kids on a road trip to Niagara Falls I entered my starting point and ending point and came up with Williamsport Pennsylvania as the halfway point. As a girl I remember doing that on Yom Kippur, counting how many pages were left in the Machzor, in the HIgh Holiday prayer book and being so excited when we passed the halfway point, meaning we were closer to bagels and the end of the day.
This morning we reached an important mile marker on the Jewish people’s journey. In today’s Torah portion of Shemini, we reach the halfway point of the Torah as commemorated by Bon Jovi in his song Living on a Prayer. The Talmud actually explains that we know the halfway point in the Torah because the early sages used to count all the letters in the Torah scroll. In fact those early sages were called soferim meaning “those who count.” If you’re not a bored kid in shul why would you bother counting pages or letters or words?
The ancient Rabbis loved the Torah as only the word of God could be loved, so they embraced every letter and verse in the Torah and made it their own by counting, teaching, studying and singing it. Even two thousand years ago the halfway point of the Torah fascinated the ancient rabbis and they argued about the exact middle. The midpoint of the words of the Torah can be found in Leviticus chapter 10 verse 16 at the words darosh darash – Moses inquired and then inquired again. For Moses the halfway point was marked by making an inquiry and asking questions.
For us we could use the halfway point in the same way. Now that we have journeyed through half of the Torah what has the Torah meant to us? How did the stops along the way help us to grow and see ourselves anew? In what ways have we grown as an Israelite people in relationship with God? What course corrections might we want to make to adjust our outcome? A halfway point is a significant enough milestone to begin to give a sense of perspective, an opportunity to step back briefly to see where we’ve been and where we are going. It also changes the feeling of the experience. When it’s no longer the beginning and the middle is fading as well, we can begin to anticipate the end. Certainly here in Leviticus the landscape of the Torah has changed in very significant ways from the family stories at the beginning of Genesis.
The family narratives from the beginning of Genesis seem almost quaint and antiquated now that we are past them. The themes of sibling rivalry and jockeying for parental affection seem almost simplistic now as we’ve moved beyond them to larger and more complex issues like national subjugation, theological challenges, mass migration and resettlement, food insecurity, and a ritual cult. A few weeks ago I compared entering the book of Leviticus to Dorothy leaving Kansas and arriving in the altered technicolor world of Oz.
But even with those significant changes, I admit I never paid much attention before to the halfway point of the Torah scroll. Most years, in most synagogues, rabbis come to Parshat Shemini and talk about the laws of Kashrut. But this year, reaching and moving past the halfway point seems significant and worthy of our attention, and not just in the context of the Torah. We too are in the midst of a great journey, and while we can’t know exactly how long it will last and exactly where we are along that journey, we too have the sense that we have finally passed the halfway point. The quaint and antiquated practices of wiping down our groceries and carrying bleach wipes in our cars now seem like the vestiges of our less sophisticated and knowledgeable past. Our children are returning or have returned to in person school, Bar Mitzvahs can now be celebrated in the sanctuary instead of the living room, small hybrid Seders were held, outdoor dining is flourishing and travel is being cautiously booked.
Like Moses, reaching what we hope and pray is beyond the halfway point of the pandemic is an opportunity for darosh darash inquiring and asking questions.After more than 13 months we have some ability to step back and have a larger perspective. The stops along the way enable us to see the ways in which we’ve grown and the course corrections we might continue to make as we approach the end, protracted though it may be. And just as we can ask about the Torah to ask ourselves what this journey has meant to us so far. There’s no stopping now, we continue wandering through the wilderness with a direction and a destination in mind, as unknown as it might be. But we can take satisfaction and a sense of accomplishment and perhaps even some joy in knowing that we’ve crossed the halfway point and we’re almost there.