Monday, July 16, 2012


I served as lay leader at Congregration Adas Emuno of Leonia (Bergen County) New Jersey for the 2nd week in a row (see my previous post, The God Particle and God's Word) this past Friday, July 13, and again I thought I'd share the sermon or D'Var Torah I gave (the Torah portion for last week was Parsha Pinchas).

For the past 8 weeks, the weekly Torah portion has come from the 4th book of the Torah, whose Hebrew name is Bamidbar, meaning in the dessert.  It was given that name because the book begins with God speaking to Moses in the Sinai dessert, and all of the events that occur in this book take place in the Sinai.  Of course, the fourth book is better known by its Christian name, which is Numbers.  Actually the original name given to it by the church was the Greek word arithmoi, from which we get our English word arithmetic, but the meaning was not so much numbers as it was magnitudes.  That is to say, it was not about abstract mathematical concepts, but about the practical act of measurement, and counting.  And the fourth book was given this name because it includes the taking of a census, not once, but twice.  

For any society, counting up the number of people that we have helps us to organize ourselves, which is why modern governments do it, for example in the United States every ten years.  In the Book of Numbers, the first census indicates that there are 603,550 Israelite men age 20 or older.  But this population experienced a loss of faith when 12 scouts are sent out to Canaan, and 10 of the 12 report back that giants dwell in that land.  Because the Israelites didn't trust in God and were afraid to enter the promised land, they were then made to dwell in the dessert as nomads for 40 years.  

Why 40 years?  Because that is the period of time that traditionally constitutes one generation.  So after 40 years, a second census is taken, and this time there are 601,730 men counted, and this is the population that will at last enter the holy land.  This week's Torah portion includes the results of the second census, and also a passage where Moses name Joshua as his successor, Joshua having been 1 of the 2 scouts, along with Caleb, who came back from Canaan painting an inviting picture of a land flowing with milk and honey.

Counting is a part of our history, and it is a part of our religion.  The 4th Commandment tell us "to remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy.  For 6 days you shall labor and do all your work. But the 7th day is a Sabbath to Adonai, your God."  And this serves as a celebration, and in a sense a re-enactment of God's act of Creation, as the commandment goes on to say, "For in 6 days Adonai made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but on the 7th day he rested."  To keep the Sabbath, we have to keep count.  

The same is not true for keeping track of day and night, as those transitions are signaled by dawn and dusk, and even though the days may be longer or shorter depending on the time of year, high noon is always the same.  So the day is based on earth's rotation, which the month is based on the cycles of the moon, and the year on earth's orbit around the sound, which can followed by observation of the changing position of the stars.  Only the 7-day week is completely arbitrary, and requires us to learn to count. and to keep an accounting.

In English, the days of the week are named after pagan deities and the sun and the moon, but in Hebrew they are simply identified by their number.  So Sunday is Yom Rishon, which means the 1st day, and Monday is Yom Sheni, which means the 2nd day, Tuesday is Yom Shlishi, which means the 3rd day, Wednesday is Yom Revi'i, the 4th day, Thursday is Yom Chamishi, the 5th day, and Friday is Yom Shishi, the 6th day.  

Each new day, in our tradition, begins at sunset, and the 7th day is called Yom Shabbat, or simply Shabbat, identifying it not by number but as a form of sacred time.  The numerical names for days has its origin in the Book of Genesis, in the story of Creation, where each episode of God's creative labors ends with the line, "And there was evening, and there was morning, the 1st day," "And there was evening, and there was morning, the 2nd day," and so on.

The ancient symbol of our people and our faith is the Menorah, which is described in the Book of Exodus as having 6 branches, 3 on either side, and 7 lamps.  In one interpretation, the 6 branches represent the 6 days of the week, and the 7th middle shaft represents Shabbat.  The Hanukkah menorah, more properly called the Hanukkiah, is a variation on the regular Menorah, in adding 2 extra branches so as to symbolize the 8 days of the holiday.

The Torah also commands us to keep track of every 7th year, which is a Sabbatical year at which time the land is given a rest and must remain fallow, debts are forgiven, slaves freed, and so on.  And the Jubilee year follows 7 Sabbaticals.  The Torah also commands us to engage in the counting of the Omer, counting 7 weeks, 7 times 7 days, the 49 days between the festival of Passover, celebrating our escape from Egyptian bondage, and that of Shavuot, celebrating our receiving of the Torah at Mount Sinai.

We all know that 7 is considered a lucky number, and all of the 7s that come up in the Bible are no doubt one of the reasons why.  And we all know about the superstition about 13 being an unlucky number, so much so that there is a word for the psychological condition marked by an irrational and overpowering fear of the number 13, triskaidekaphobia.  Architects apparently suffer from this condition as an occupational hazard, because most buildings do not have a 13th floor, or more specifically, skip from 12 to 14 in their numbering.  And today is Friday the 13th, a day that is considered especially unlucky, unless you are a producer of horror films.  

No one is really sure how the number 13 gained this negative image, but one theory is that it is on account of anti-Semitism, because 13 is considered a lucky number in Jewish tradition, not the least because it is the age of maturity.  Traditionally, 13 is the age when a boy becomes Bar Mitzvah, and in the traditional Bar Mitzvah speech typically says, today I am a man, and in traditional Jewish practice is considered a full member of society, and able to join a minyan, and lead prayer services. 

For the past 90 years, we have also included the Bat Mitzvah ceremony for girls, which also is sometimes associated with age 13, and sometimes a year earlier, because girls mature faster than boys.  But 13 is the first of the 7 numbers that end in teen, and maybe its negative image came from its association with teenagers?  I'm joking of course, but I should add that in our tradition, 13 has other positive associations connected to Rabbinic commentaries and Kabbalistic teachings, and for us, Friday the 13th is good luck, it's mazel tov!

Odd numbers like 7 and 13 stand out, and especially when they are prime numbers, that is numbers that cannot be divided evenly by any other number.  

Even numbers, on the other hand, give us a sense of balance and wholeness.  The symbol often used to represent the Jewish people and Judaism as a faith is the six-pointed star.  The symbol of the House of King David, we commonly refer to it as the Star of David, although the Hebrew phrase, Magen David, means Shield of David.  The six-pointed star is sometimes known as the Seal of Solomon, King Solomon being the son of King David.  The Jewish Star, as it is also called, has been used as a symbol of good luck since the Middle Ages.  The hexagram formed by the union of two equilateral triangles serves as symbol of unity, and community.

Given that symbolism, it takes sense that if you multiply 6 times 2, you get 12, and that is the number of the sons of Jacob, the ancestors of the 12 tribes of Israel.   And if you multiply 6 time 3, you get the number 18, which means chai, life, and that is why we often give gifts and donations in multiples of 18 for B'nai Mitzvahs and weddings, and donations to the synagogue (hint, hint).

Why is the Hebrew word for life given the numerical value of 18?  The letters of the Hebrew alphabet serve double duty as numerals, so that aleph represents 1, bet is 2, gimel is 3, and so on up to yud, which is 10.  Following yud, kaf is 20, lamed is 30, mem is 40, and so on up to kuf, which is 100.  The remainder of the letters, including the final forms of chaf, mem, nun, pei, and tsadi, bring us up to 900.  To represent values of 1,000 or more, letters are reused.  

But the important point is that, because the Hebrew letters are also used as numerals, every written word also has a numerical value, and this is the basis of numerology.  Jewish numerology is known as Gematria, and is associated with the tradition of Jewish mysticism of the Kabbalah.  Kabbalistic scholars believe that there are hidden messages encoded within the Torah, and some draw on the Gematria in an attempt to uncover hidden numerical meanings in the Five Books of Moses. 

Of course, numbers typically are used for practical concerns in the Torah, for example in the results of the census found in this week's portion.  In Exodus, in the same parsha that tells us how to make a menorah, we find instructions for building the Ark of the Covenant, specifying that it should be 2½ cubits long, 1½ cubits wide, and 1½ cubits high, and that there should also be a table 2 cubits long, 1 cubit wide, and 1½ cubits high.  And this section contains many more specific measurements for the cloth and planks of wood needed to make the Tabernacle and its enclosure.  For that matter, long before Moses or Abraham, the Book of Genesis tells us that Noah was commanded to build an Ark 300 cubits long, 50 cubits wide, and 30 cubits wide.

What we can infer from all of these numbers is that our tradition encourages a certain facility with numbers.  Numbers don't come 1st, of course.  Genesis does not begin with a countdown to Creation, it begins with God's word, and it is the word that we venerate above all.  We are the People of the Book, the most sacred object in our sanctuary is the Torah scroll, and our b'nai mitzvah ceremonies are not math exams, they are literacy tests.  But literacy is closely connected to numeracy, together forming what we sometimes call the 3 Rs, reading, writing, and arithmetic.  

These skills gave many of our people a way to survive in times when most occupations were closed to us, and we played an important role in helping to bring Europe out of its feudal economy and into the modern world of free enterprise.  I think we can also understand how people who don't know how to read, write or do arithmetic, and therefore don't know how to reason in abstract terms, would not be able to understand the concept of paying interest on loans.  And how it would be all too easy to blame the messenger when tax collectors came around on the orders of the king or government.  These factors do not account for the origins of anti-Semitism, but they certainly added to that practice of prejudice and scapegoating. 

But what I want to stress is not money, but mathematics.  Being raised in our tradition does not guarantee that you will be good with numbers, some of us hate math, and have no feel for equations, and that's no sin.  But as a population, we are statistically well represented in occupations that involve counting and calculations, and that's because our culture encourages and aids the acquisition of arithmetic skills and abilities.  You might say that it helps to open a door, or many different doors in fact, doors that each individual may or may not step though.  And some doors may lead to business, or banking, or finance, or to being an accountant.  Other doors may lead to physics and chemistry, to medicine, to engineering, or to computer programming.  Still others may lead to pure mathematics, or economics, or to being a sports statistician, or a chess player, or to being a rabbi studying Kabbalah and Gematria. 

Whether we're mathematically inclined or not, as a people we count the days of the week, and the months, and we also count the years.  The Hebrew calendar tells us that this is year 5,772, and in a couple of months it will be 5,773.  So if we were to count backwards, where would that leave us?  Tradition has it, the calendar goes back to the origin of the world, but of course modern science tells us that cannot be correct.  The obvious answer might be, it goes back to the time when we started counting.  And there is some truth to it.  

In ancient Mesopotamia, the Sumerians had been using various systems of notation for approximately 10,000 years, and those systems evolved into the first form of writing, cuneiform, about 5,500 years ago.  And who invented cuneiform?  It was the ancient accountants, who used it as a method of keeping track of property in the palace and trade in the marketplace.  And the first written characters to be introduced were numerals.  So it was numeracy that gave birth to literacy, and the Hebrew calendar roughly coincides with this development, with the introduction of numerals for counting.

Traditional Jewish history begins with the patriarch Abraham, who was not Sumerian, but one of a number of Semitic peoples who lived in Mesopotamia and had come to dominate that region about 4,000 years ago.  Among them, the Babylonians were especially advanced in regard to mathematics for that time.  Hebrew numerals were born in the Sinai dessert, however, around 3,500 years ago, and the origin of the Semitic alphabet at that time roughly coincides with the events represented by the story of the exodus from Egypt.  Numeracy, along with literacy, was spread throughout the ancient world by the Semitics peoples, by the Israelites, the Babylonians, and the Phoenecians.  When it reached ancient Greece, about 2,700 years ago, the result was geometry.  

When numeracy was brought east to India, about 2,300 years ago, the result was the invention of the number zero, and with it positional notation.  Neither our ancestors, nor the Greeks or Romans, had conceived of zero, of nothingness, and none of the earlier numeral systems used the concept of positions that is now in common use today, where the 1st position on the right refers to the units 0-9, the 2nd position represents multiples of 10, the third represents multiples of 100, and so on.  This gift from India opened the door to all forms of mathematics beyond adding and subtracting, and was delivered to the west through another Semitic people, the Arabs, which is why our numerals are commonly referred to as Arabic numerals.  During the Middle Ages, the Jewish people lived in peace and prospered within Islamic lands, and shared in the benefits of this new form of numeracy long before it was adopted in Europe.

But beyond all of the practical advantages of numeracy, there is something about the world of numbers that excites the imagination of individuals of all sorts of different religions, faiths, and belief systems.  There is something about the simplicity of numbers that brings to mind the spiritual.  There is something about their purity that brings to mind the sacred and the sanctified.  There is something about their abstract quality, so removed from the compromises and approximations of the material world, that brings to mind the transcendent.  There is something of their perfection that brings to mind the divine.  

This sense of the mystical aspect of numbers extends to the concept of infinity, which fits in so well with the monotheistic conception of God.  In Kabbalistic tradition, God is described in terms of infinity as ein sof, without end.  According to the 16th century Kabbalist, Isaac Luria, God was ein sof before Creation, and being infinite, was all that existed.  In order to make space for something other than God, Adonai had to engage in Tzimtzum, which means withdrawal, contracting into himself in order to free up space for a finite Creation.

The thing about infinity is that it is not a number.  Infinity cannot be numbered, cannot be counted.  When you consider the concept of infinity in numbers, if you add one to infinity, you still have infinity.  But the same is also true if you subtract one from infinity:  you still have infinity!  And there are greater and lesser infinities.  A one-dimensional line stretching endlessly in both directions is infinite in length, but a two-dimensional plane, stretching endlessly in all directions is infinite in area, and therefore a greater infinity than the one-dimensional line.  And a three-dimensional-space that is without end would be greater still.  So in the case of Tzimtzum, God could withdraw into himself in order for there to be something other than God, becoming less than God was before and yet, still be infinite.

The lesson for us should be plain enough.  We too can engage in Tzimtzum, self-withdrawal.  That is what Shabbat affords us, a time to withdraw from the world, from the constant activity and demands of the world.  We can withdraw to make room for something other than ourselves, and yet not lose anything in the process, for there is something of the ein sof, a spark of the infinite inside all of us.  We can withdraw, and in doing so, find that we have gained something that we would not otherwise have had.

Albert Einstein once said, "Everything that can be counted does not necessarily count; everything that counts cannot necessarily be counted."  On this Shabbat, may we be guided by the humbling realization that all of our days are numbered, so that we may resolve to make each and every day count, and so that we may be determined to be individuals that others can count upon.

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