The Numbers:13 Project
These are the commandments and regulations that the LORD enjoined upon the Israelites, through Moses, on the steppes of Moab, at the Jordan near Jericho. Numbers 36:13
The other evening, as I relaxed after a long day, I half-listened to one of those breathless network “true-crime” programs. It reported on the tragic saga of a young man who committed suicide after being encouraged by his girlfriend. The correspondent went to great lengths to make both sides of the story sound equally compelling and succeeded at convincing me that two young lives had been wasted.
Saddened though I was by this story, my attention was snagged by the defense attorney’s legal gambit. He was quite insistent that independent of the girl’s intentions and regardless of the contents of the electronic messages she sent to her boyfriend, the charges against her (involuntary manslaughter) were not legitimate because the law did not define encouragement to suicide as a crime. What he did not say, though he didn’t-say it very clearly, was that even if she were guilty of persuading this young man to end his life, her words were not a violation of any applicable law.
I am not a lawyer, and any expertise I have in the law is from studying Talmud, but these fifteen seconds of legal justification struck me as infuriatingly wise. We sometimes decry the minutiae of the law and the way some people manipulate it to their personal gain, but in the end, it is the law which compels us to first act justly. I am all in favor of the discretion of judges to impose an overlay of compassion or outrage when there are extenuating circumstances. (For compassion, see Judge Frank Caprio. For outrage, nobody beats Judge Judith Sheindlin – don’t let the smile fool you.) But the more specific the statute is, the less opportunity there is for abuse.
It can take awhile for the law to catch up with society, and this sorry case is a good example. Most of the exchange between the boy and the girl took place by text. In fact, they were in different cities during the last months of the boy’s decline into fatal depression. Anyone who has jumped to an emotional conclusion after receiving an email that cannot convey a disarming smile, a sarcastic intonation or a stricken look understands that what the reader imposes is rarely what the writer intended. Difficult debates are necessary, not just about public social media, but private electronic communications as well if we are to prevent uncertain circumstances like this from becoming more common.
Jewish law is often denigrated, even by Jews, with the adjective “legalistic,” suggesting that what is served by debate over a point of law is the legal system itself, not the people who must abide by that system. Certainly, there are plenty of examples that look to validate that criticism. I love to study the section of the Mishnah (the compendium of case law based on the application of the Torah) at the very beginning of the section about Shabbat. It discusses carrying between a private and a public domain (think house and street), which is prohibited. But in this detailed articulation, further expanded in Talmudic discussion and commentary, is instruction about how a compassionate householder can feed an itinerant homeless person without either of them running afoul of the restrictions on portage and commerce. One can strictly observe the law – that is, serve the system – and at the same time show compassion to someone in need – that is, serve the person.
Some scholars believe that the original Torah was just four books long. The fifth Book of Moses, Deuteronomy, is a rich source of legal and moral guidance, all placed in the mouth of Moses as his valedictory. But the action ends with the verse above. Maybe the original anthology was meant to convey the very specific limitations of “revealed knowledge” by concluding with verse that heads this column with who, what, when and where (and “why” presumed). But almost immediately, it was pretty clear that there was no such thing as comprehensive law that cannot be challenged by unanticipated circumstances. So – the Fifth Book. And the Talmud. And the codes of Jewish law. And modern and contemporary study and application.
In my professional life, I live with my frustration with those who manipulate the good intentions of laws designed to protect religious minorities from discrimination by dominant religious practice. The crass reinterpretation of statutes designed to protect head coverings and daily prayer breaks has led to the awful consequences that afflict certain people seeking marriage licenses or indicated health care from people with “religious objections.” As an advocate, I am exasperated. As a private Jew, I am intrigued by the debates ahead in the halls of Congress, in state capitals and in every court in the land. We aren’t yet near Deuteronomy on this one!
This is the last column in the Numbers:13 Project, being inspired by the last verse of the last chapter of the book. After a hiatus of some weeks, the final series in this years-long project will commence. Watch for The Last of Deuteronomy, beginning sometime after the secular new year and concluding with fall Jewish holidays.
The Numbers:13 Project
The towns that you thus assign shall be six cities of refuge in all. Numbers 35:13
In these columns, I usually start with something contemporary and find some resonance in the Biblical verse. Ordinarily, I do not interpret and apply the verse as I might in a brief lesson in a synagogue or other religious setting. But I will offer here the exception that proves the rule.
This small verse comes near the end of a long legal instruction about manslaughter – the crime that occurs when one person takes the life of another with neither malice aforethought nor intention. One classic example given in the Bible is when two friends go off to chop wood and, as one is swinging the axe, the head flies off and strikes the other dead. The next-of-kin of the victim has the legal right to take the life of the perpetrator. In order to avoid more bloodshed, the manslayer may flee to one of six designated cities of refuge where their life is protected. The avenging kin is prohibited from harming his prey as long as the person he is chasing remains in the city.
The Biblical Hebrew term for such a city is the same word as “shelter” in modern Hebrew. It is painted on every bomb shelter in Israel, which means you can’t walk five minutes in any populated area without seeing it. The word carries with it the notion that a person seeking such shelter is trying to avoid bodily harm, perhaps specifically death.
But lost in the way we understand the term today is the very important detail in the Biblical story that the pursuing kin has the right to take the life of the pursued perp. That is, the right, but not the obligation. If the boiling blood of the bereaved has cooled, they may choose not to seek the death of the otherwise innocent person. But even if a promise – even if a vow – was exacted from the next-of-kin, should blood boil again, the original risk to the offender remains. That person is and remains a refugee; that person is and remains entitled to refuge.
(There is an end point to this standoff. With the death of the High Priest, mostly a generational event, the slate is wiped clean, presumably because such an occurrence provokes an internal reset for the entire population. Otherwise, the ability to remain a refugee is permanent. And others may decide to live in the city of refuge, even without the need for protection.)
Now, let’s come back to contemporary matters. The politics of how we describe migrant populations are complex. People uproot themselves for all sorts of reasons, but it is rarely out of a simple desire to leave home. Poverty, lack of resources, repression, oppression, ambition, even greed may play into a decision to quit a native land. I myself know many people from multiple generations whose accomplished parents – doctors, professors, engineers, thought-leaders – have given up a life of recognition and security to come to the United States and work in reduced circumstances so that their children could lead a better life. I knew couples who scooped up their young children and moved to remote places after September 11, 2001 out of fear for war against the United States. And I know young people who came to this country to make money, sometimes to bring their families and sometimes to live luxuriously (and sometimes both).
But when someone shows up fearing for their safety, by whatever term we describe them, that person is a refugee. That person needs shelter from a danger that pursues them.
In another town, in another time, I knew an unlikely refugee. She showed up with a young
daughter, and she had a haunted and hunted look. Sure enough, she was fleeing from an
abusive husband who had threatened to take away the little girl and punish -- maybe kill -- his
wife. She adopted an assumed name, cut off communication with friends and family and sought
The details of the story made it sound too lurid to be believable by my young self, not yet a
witness to the deplorable things human beings can inflict on each other, But the community
took in this small and frightened family.
One day, the woman came to my office to tell me her husband had dropped dead, literally. He
was driving somewhere, felt distress, parked his car, rang a stranger’s doorbell and collapsed
on the front step. Gone. And he took with him the fear and despair of his wife. She and her
daughter reclaimed their identities and went on to live their lives. They were able to do so
because strangers offered them refuge without demanding evidence or proof. Had we declined,
they might have been lost, or worse.
Long after the fact, I have realized it didn’t matter if her story was true. She didn’t need to be a
true refugee to live in a city of refuge. The practical function of the city of refuge is to save
innocent lives. But the very existence of such a city is an expression of the values of the society
that provides it.
Woe to those who turn away people claiming to be fleeing for their lives. They may eventually
wash the blood from their hands. But even if there is no blood to wash, they will never warm
their stone-cold hearts.
(Looking for something more uplifting? Visit www.thesixtyfund.weebly.com or click on the link to The Sixty Fund above. Two new awards were made in November 2019.)
The Numbers:13 Project
Moses instructed the Israelites, saying: This is the land you are to receive by lot as your hereditary portion, which the LORD has commanded to be given to the nine and a half tribes. Numbers 34:13
I know that it is improper to reference Woody Allen these days, but sometimes no one else will do. Sue me.
In “Love and Death,” he narrates his father’s obsession with small piece of ancestral land – so small, he was able to carry it with him. The gag recurs (including the Lego-size house that his father builds on the hunk of sod), and Boris (Allen) makes fun of the delusion.
This lampoon of humankind’s attachment to real estate is worth some reflection. Very little in the human experience rivals the possessiveness we feel as individuals, families and national groups to physical territory. The whole of the story of the Israelites in the Five Books of Moses is about our place in The Land. The rest of the Bible, and even beyond, concerns itself with exile and return, exile and return from and to The Land. The liturgy Jews developed to recite three times a day and after every meal and in triumphant proclamation on Yom Kippur and Passover yearns for a return to The Land. The Israeli national anthem, not to mention the theme from the movie “Exodus,” affirm that it is not enough just to be free. We must be free in Our Land (which God gave to me).
And that’s just the Jews.
How many wars have been fought among Christians and among Muslims and between Christians and Muslims over land? And this territorial imperative is not limited to the Abrahamic faiths. On every continent, except maybe Antarctica, faith groups and sub-groups, tribes and clans, peoples of various coloration and real estate moguls have waged conflict with whatever weapons were available in order to secure exclusive control over what they hope to inhabit and/or control.
Viscerally, I understand it. I am a homeowner, and though the piece of land that is mine is a little too large to carry around with me, I feel a connection to My Land that is distinct from everywhere else I go. That feeling is not the same for me anywhere else. I suspect that the former residents have transferred their land-connection to their current homes, but they will always feel the attachment in some way, as I do to Francisco Avenue in Chicago or Clapboard Ridge Road in Danbury. Some of me is in that land, and some of that land is in me.
But intellectually, I struggle with the concept. What is it about a particular piece of real estate that has such a hold on a person or a people? We have a tendency to speak in near-mystical terms about our land but, asked to explain it, we are reduced to waving our hands and relying on metaphor and memory. If I had to give up strawberries, I would be satisfied with blueberries, but I would fight tooth and nail to retain my home, even if offered a nicer place not of my own choosing. I cannot tell you why, but you likely understand.
So much of our sense of security is attached to the land. On the southern border of the United States, on the west bank of the Jordan River, in the Crimea and in so many other places, we insist that the issues have to do with the rule of law or military preparedness or historical authenticity, but it is really about land. It is as if everyone acknowledges that the Bible is accurate when, in the very beginning of the narrative, it connects the formation of the human being (or, as one of my professors preferred, “the earthling”) from the very dust of the earth. Though legend has that dust combining from the four corners (as if) of the earth, individuals and the groups we form seem to believe we have been filled with a very particular patch of earth.
Astronauts train for an existence that is without terra firma beneath them. Some believe they are paving the way for humanity’s eventual departure from this planet, once we have used up the resources that sustain us. I wonder if we will export our fixation on the land with us, or if somehow we will wean ourselves off of this inexplicable obsession.
If we do, I would not be surprised to encounter an old man with a piece of land in his coat pocket, a tiny home clinging to it, that he is willing to defend even at the cost of his life.
The Numbers:13 Project
They set out from Dophkah and encamped at Alush. Numbers 33:16
My friend Ron Wolfson, a most extraordinary Jewish educator, captivated audiences twenty-five years ago by recalling a staple of his youth. It was the “TripTik,” and in the days before GPS, it was the best way to get from point A to point B on America’s highway system.
(It may yet be the best, and TripTik is still a service of “Triple A,” the American Automobile Association.)
The notion behind TripTik was brilliant. Your AAA representative would compile a spiral-bound collection of maps tracking your route in short stretches. If you were to stay on an interstate for 100 miles, you might get a single map with all 100 miles highlighted. But if the exit meant for you put you on a series of different roads, you might have three or four maps for that section of the drive, some covering only a mile or two. By following the yellow-lined road, you could get from your driveway to your destination with ease. Plus, the flip side of each map had lots of information about services, stops and sights.
Ron appropriated the notion and applied it to “Jewish journeys.” He suggested that people usually knew where they were but didn’t always know how to get where they were going. Maybe they wanted to be more comfortable in synagogue. Maybe they had intellectual curiosity about Jewish ideas. Maybe they were looking to feel a part of the community. Maybe they wanted to help repair the world. If educators, including rabbis, could produce a TripTik for people who were on the road, they would likely arrive at their desired destination. And they could choose a direct route, a scenic route or a combination of the two.
My car has a navigation system, and I don’t remember the last time I used paper maps, but I see the value in appreciating the journey and not just the destination. The screen in my car shows me landmarks and exits, but it also urges me to keep up with the estimated arrival time. GPS is all about efficiency, not adventure.
Back in the day (never mind when that day was), my wife and I drove cross-country on our way to live in Los Angeles for a couple of years. It was an adventure, to be sure. We have stories we can still tell – a traffic ticket on Oklahoma delivered by state trooper out of central casting; a motel diner in Oldham County, Texas with a young waitress persuaded her best years were behind her; a chance encounter with a Jew from Flagstaff who begged us to send him bagels; the most elaborate McDonald’s we had ever seen in Barstow. The names are enough to evoke a memory.
And though the longer narrative of places we lived seems more formative, the singular lessons of those brief stops are vivid. “You’re in a heap of trouble,” is not just a movie line. Sadness can be a lifelong affliction. All Jews are responsible for each other. After a long ride across the desert (and before the next leg), you really do deserve a break today.
It is the same for Ron’s Jewish journey. The ordinary circumstance of the resident is the extraordinary experience of the traveler. An invitation to Shabbat dinner. A sermon during a family bat mitzvah. An encounter with a fellow demonstrator at a rally for a just cause. What resonates as home for the denizen is a special event for the visitor.
From Natchez to Mobile, from Memphis to St. Joe, there is a lesson at every stop. Maybe it is a life-lesson (don’t speed in Oklahoma) and maybe it is just a cute anecdote (begging for bagels). From Dophkah to Alush, from Libnah to Rissa, every place on the journey has a story. And the story from that place becomes another enhancement of the next traveler’s TripTik.
The short version of a long trip may celebrate the facts, but it doesn’t accomplish much else. The itinerary from point A to point B, on the other hand, encourages questions and spurs curiosity. That’s important when recalling a journey – your own, your friends’, your peoples’.
The Numbers:13 Project
The LORD was incensed at Israel, and for forty years He made them wander in the wilderness, until the whole generation that had provoked the LORD’s displeasure was gone. Numbers 32:13
I think it is impossible to overestimate the impact of a traumatic experience on any individual or group. In my experience – with myself and with others – the injury that occurs when an assault takes place on body or mind has lasting and unpredictable after-effects.
I offer an example from my own life that I acknowledge is silly, but still present after more than 60 years. I was walking to school when I was in second grade. As I was about to enter the playground, I heard yelling and barking and the clinking of a metal collar and caught sight over my shoulder of a dog running in my direction. My instinct to flee took hold and I began to run, which encouraged the dog to run after me, nipping at my heels. I was terrified. Somehow, the situation was calmed without injury to me, the other students or the dog (which had probably slipped its leash).
But since that day and until I was almost 35, I would only buy shoes that had a substantial heel counter and back stay (those are the parts that cover the back of your foot) in case I ever got chased again by a nipping dog. I was cured only when I was actually bitten by a dog (on my leg), a little yappy thing that almost got booted across the room when I realized what it had done to me completely unprovoked. (No skin was broken, no lawsuit was filed, and the furry little animal was scooped up and whisked away, able to attack another unsuspecting stranger).
Still, whenever I hear the jingling of a dog’s collar, I am transported back to that morning when I was in second grade.
Still not a big fan of dogs, I am embarrassed by the effect of that long-ago incident on my life, and I feel foolish trotting it out when people ask if I mind that their dog sticks a snout between my legs.
A group can be just as traumatized as a person, even if the presenting experience did not happen directly to the current generation. The verse above presents every generation of Bible-believers, most especially Jews, with an awful choice. Either reject the God whose anger sentenced them to die in the desert or live in fear that the same thing could happen to us.
If you have spoken frankly with survivors of the Holocaust, you know that the choice was stark to them. How could they believe in a deity who would sentence them to death? And if they did believe, they dared not do anything to provoke. Three generations later, the Jews still struggle with these possibilities. While we go through life with expectations of “normalcy,” the symbolic jingling of the dog’s collar surfaces a latent historical memory. Most reject the notion of an all-powerful God of vengeance. Some tremble before a God who demands obedience to the details of the law.
We can’t rewrite the Bible, and despite our attempts otherwise we can’t rewrite history. The trauma, real or embellished, has made its mark on us. Its pain abates and retreats but pressing on the trigger point can bring it back in vivid remembrance.
Like a lot of men my age, I look back at relationships that I entered when I was learning my way through love. I hope I was always appropriate. I suspect I was not. All these years later, I imagine that a reminder of me may very well be the jingling of the dog collar to women long out of my life. Having had my heart broken more than once and my reluctance dismissed by aggressive social partners, it is not hard for me to believe that there is someone out there who carries a wound of my making. I hope that if I ever were confronted, I would have the common sense and decency to apologize for my mistakes and selfishness. I know that at this time in my life, I would not be stupid enough to be dismissive.
If someone can still remember being chased by a dog at age seven, then why wouldn’t a woman remember a man who forced himself on her? And if the trauma feels too shameful to announce, why would anyone expect the victim of an invasive crime to acquiesce to the attention that seeking justice would require? Even 3000 years after our ancestors were left to die in the wilderness, we are afraid to speak of the sense of betrayal. It takes a long time not to see victimhood as personal failure.
There are men in our world today whose desperation for power and admiration lead them to forestall any hope of repairing their past transgressions. They prefer to maintain their sense of rectitude by revisiting the past with their own revisionism, pressing on the trigger point, denying the encounter, denigrating the victim – almost always at the moment that courage overcomes embarrassment to bring the event to light.
Contrast that approach with what the Holy One models for us. No cover up, no denial, no avoiding responsibility. And even if an apology is out of character, the desire to restore our relationship even as we remember what caused a rupture is a good model for how to reconcile.
The Numbers:13 Project
Moses, Eleazar the priest, and all the chieftains of the community came out to meet them outside the camp. Numbers 31:13
Every time my grandchildren come to visit (driven by their parents, of course), my wife and I wait anxiously for them to arrive. When the car pulls up to our house, invariably, no matter the weather, we come out the front door to get the earliest possible hugs.
There are some few other guests who get that kind of welcome. But unless someone is schlepping large or heavy packages, we generally allow them to approach the house in their own time. That’s why we have a doorbell.
I mean no reference to Seinfeld when I suggest that we are the masters of our domain. It is up to us whether we admit a visitor (even if that visitor used to be a resident!). And other than our perfect grandchildren, there are two different reasons we might try to intercept someone on the way to our door.
The first is to show particular respect or honor. A much-anticipated visitor who is especially loved or missed might very well be accompanied on those last few steps as an expression of special welcome. It is as if to say, symbolically, I am coming to retrieve you from afar and escort you to my home. In story and song, from the Bible to Broadway, a delegation that goes out to meet the arriving or returning dignitary is an indication of deference and celebration.
The second is to express caution. A person’s home is their refuge and the place in which their most precious family members reside. It is a place of privacy and safety, and it contains their valuables – not just material goods, but also memories of a life lived. A delegation that steps out of the front door, closing it behind, to prevent arriving visitors from stepping up to the threshold, issues an unspoken warning: leave any hostilities outside or I will not admit you.
The householder is always in the position of power. Whether that power is used deferentially or as a deterrent, the decision is theirs to deploy it or withhold it.
This dynamic is not only literal. It is also symbolic. When the house is not just a house, the arriving outsider may be just as surely welcomed or warned.
Think about a house of worship. In my tradition, that is the synagogue. Years ago, when our neighbor Presbyterians quit their church for a months-long renovation, they moved in with us. On a designated Sunday, they made the walk of a few blocks to their temporary home. Waiting for them outside to usher them in were leaders and members of the synagogue community. We greeted them with “Welcome home.” The awaiting delegation made a profoundly loving start to a season of very close quarters.
These days, if you approach the same house of worship, you will find that the householders have someone to meet you on the way in, too – a sheriff’s deputy, whose presence is meant to reassure the arriving worshipers of their safety, and to deliver the message to leave any hostilities outside or I will not admit you. It is an unfortunate response to a climate of fear.
The same contrast is true when the house is not actually a house. Institutions have householders, gatekeepers who decide who gets admitted and who does not. They can flex their muscle by controlling the approach as well as the admission. From the bouncer on the rope line at a club to the majority leader of a legislative body, these power holders can determine who will be welcomed and who will be frustrated. Some will enjoy the dance, and others will be excluded from the very process.
It is worth thinking about the messages that come with greeting those who arrive at your house when you step outside the front door. Are you making a show of power or of delight – or even both.
All of this applies to every circumstance except one. If our delicious grandchildren show up at your place, rush to get your hugs. Don’t waste a minute on ceremony.
The Numbers:13 Project
But if her husband does annul them on the day he finds out, then nothing that has crossed her lips shall stand, whether vows or self-imposed obligations. Her husband has annulled them, and the LORD will forgive her. Numbers 30:13
Over the years, I have had conversations with people who have described their marriages in terms unfamiliar to me. Specifically, one spouse or another had the power of veto over decisions made by the other. I just don’t get it.
An acquaintance of mine, many years ago, told me that his wife had decided to get a business degree. They had two children in elementary school, and she took classes around their schedule, studying at night after their bedtime and in any spare moment she could find. One day, as she and her husband were on their way to a social occasion on a local highway, he said to her, “I think you should just throw those books out the window and give up this business thing.” She did. He was very proud of that story.
Yes, it was most often the husband who had this authority over his wife. But there have also been circumstances in which a husband has made a commitment and later called me to say that his wife had reversed his decision. (I simply do not have enough experience with two men or two women to know if that kind of power is ever vested in one person or the other.)
I’m not talking about a deliberated compromise. I hope every couple has discussions about priorities and commitments. I mean exactly the kind of situation described in the verse above: one person made an autonomous decision, and the other person reversed it.
This is the stuff of sitcoms, I have to say. George Jefferson ordering ‘Weezy, Ralph Kramden commanding Alice, Maude instructing Walter. Except at the end of 26 minutes, comeuppance is a guarantee. Even when we laugh, nobody puts up with that malarkey in the end.
This kind of presumed authority is thinly-disguised spousal abuse. The removal of personal autonomy in decision-making by one partner is a denigration of the humanity of the other. Surrendering the ability to make “vows and self-imposed obligations” – especially after the fact – invalidates personal competence and judgment. It creates a hierarchy of basic human dignity which, by all measures, violates the equality of all people.
In my work I encounter any number of faith traditions that affirm that a wife must submit to the authority of her husband. (These traditions have less experience than I with single-sex couples.) While there are any number of places in the Bible that they cite justification, none is more explicit than this one. The usual explanation, perhaps better described as a rationalization, is that men are better suited to decision-making than women.
In communities governed by rules like these, the prophecy is self-fulfilling. Wives (and women in general) second-guess their own judgment, having been taught it is inferior to their husbands’. In turn, they teach their daughters and granddaughters to defer to the men in their lives.
Even in “enlightened” traditions, the vestiges of this hierarchy remain. Women’s teachings may be overruled by men’s. Female devotees serve the male clergy who are the only conduits to the divine. Women do not serve as judges or as members of a quorum. No matter how it is justified or explained away, the female partner is less-than. And when the male partner becomes less-than, he is depicted as female, to add insult to injury.
I know that it is easy to be critical, especially since we live in a time when pushing back on these teachings is considered the moral and righteous thing to do. But the attitudes and practices we are correcting are deeply embedded in our cultures, our traditions and, according to the tenets of faith, our sacred and inviolable literature. What do we do with them?
It is not enough, I am afraid, to assert our presumed authority over such a text. The result of a flat rejection may be satisfying for the person who feels righteously above the text, but it will do little to persuade the woman or man who feels bound by sacred instruction. It is also insufficient to suggest that people being disadvantaged by these teachings – most of them women – to ”give it time.”
Instead, men and women alike need to model and instruct the right kind of behavior and accompanying attitudes. It is especially true for opinion leaders – public figures, clergy, people in charge. Just as we no longer hang a transgressor, stone a stubbornly rebellious son or allow for revenge killings, we must say unequivocally that these windows into past conduct are sacred because of their origin, not because of their relevance.
That’s an attitude that probably dissatisfies everyone a little bit. But its my story, and I am sticking to it.
The Numbers:13 Project
You shall present a burnt offering, an offering by fire of pleasing odor to the LORD: Thirteen bulls of the herd, two rams, fourteen yearling lambs; they shall be without blemish. Numbers 29:13
Human societies have a long and complicated relationship with numbers. We like to count things and then assign significance to the totals and the way we can divvy them up. Perhaps numbers are the last vestige of the human family (as depicted in the Bible) before it fractured into different languages and tribe. Mathematical patterns are a universal means of expression. Though they are essentially without nuance, they can be used to express music, color and physical relativity that can capture profound insights.
Though I am not much of a whiz at math, nonetheless I have a fascination with numbers, too. Like my friend Don, I take delight in gematria (with a hard “g”), the “science” that finds relationships between words in Hebrew with the same numerical value. (Every letter in Hebrew has an assigned value, so if you add up the numbers in, say, chokhmah – 8+20+40+5 = 73 – you will find it to be the same as hachayyim – 5+8+10+10+20. Chokhma means “wisdom,” hachayyim means “the life.” Therefore, there must be a link between wisdom and life.) Gematria can get pretty complicated and has implications for students of the Jewish mystical tradition. I find it a useful excuse to find connections among ideas, such as “wisdom” and “life.”
We assign significance to numbers that are not inherent, rather that recognize our values. To be #1 in any field of endeavor means dominance or, at least, arriving earliest. Seven is both prime and complete. Ten is comprehensive. Name almost any number and it will have significance for someone – a batting streak, a weight goal, an hourly wage, the roster of Biblical commandments.
But sometimes a number is just a number. I had a conversation with a friend of mine about our ages. “You are only as old as you feel,” he said to me (an observation that he was quick to acknowledge was not original). “That’s irrelevant,” I replied. “Some days I feel like a teenager and some days I feel like an old man. But my age is my age, a neutral fact.” The nuance of that number is not carried by the digits; it is meaning imputed (in this case) by an attitude about age.
When I look at the number of offerings and sacrifices designated by the Bible for various occasions, I am frequently mystified. The descending totals for the seven days of Tabernacles (which the verse above begins) has a meaning as self-evident as the last verse of “The Twelve Days of Christmas.” And the time necessary to slaughter and roast 29 animals in the Temple precincts would probably take up the whole of the day for the priestly personnel. But the numbers mean something, even if that meaning has been lost to time and speculation.
There is one type of significance to numbers that is assigned by Jewish tradition that strikes me as a recognition of the neutral value of those numbers. There is a strong opposition to counting people – that is, reducing their uniqueness to a number. Even in determining the number of people present for a minyan (quorum), it is not permissible to assign each one a number. Instead, a ten-word phrase is used, or the counting is preceded by “not” (not-one, not-two, etc.). Only when the purpose of counting is for a divinely-mandated purpose – building the Temple, entering the Promised Land – may a census be conducted, but even then within the tribal memberships rather than a general counting.
It is therefore not without irony that the English name of this book is “Numbers.” (In Hebrew it carries the traditional name, taken from the first word of significance, “Bemidbar,” “In the wilderness.”) The numbers in Numbers are abundant and call out for interpretation, perhaps because they seem somehow random.
But the numbers themselves are neutral, digits that represent quantity or order or something that bears meaning assigned rather than inherent. That open-ended fact makes it somehow wonderful that numbers exist without limit.
The Numbers:13 Project
As meal offering for each lamb: a tenth of a measure of fine flour with oil mixed in. Such shall be the burnt offering of pleasing odor, an offering by fire to the LORD. Numbers 28:13
Like most men I know, I believe I can look at a something labeled “some assembly required” and succeed in that “some assembly” with little or no guidance. When I get a new piece of electronic wizardry, I am always glad to find that there are two sets of instructions – the comprehensive user’s manual and the quick-start guide; I don’t need either of them. And when tasked with following a recipe, I need only two measuring devices – a tablespoon and a 1-cup measure – because I have a good eye for how much to fill each if the recipe calls for a teaspoon or a quarter-cup of something.
I am confident in my abilities because, though I have no formal training in these skills, both of my grandfathers were very good with their hands. Plus, I can visualize things in my head.
At the core of the assumptions about all of these various assembling activities is the cavalier attitude of “how hard can it be?” Hammers and nails, Allen wrenches and wood screws, flour and salt, these are ingredients that anyone with a modicum of common sense can figure out how to put together.
Similarly, what prevents me from being a good actor, an admired singer, a talented dancer? Sure, not everyone is DeNiro, Dion or Hough, but how hard can it be to recite your lines, carry a tune or tap your feet?
And if you can ride a bike, you can drive a car. If you can drive a car, you can skipper a boat. If you can skipper a boat (and play a video game), you can pilot a plane. How hard can it be?
I am, of course, wrong about all those things. Be glad I did not become a surgeon.
Some few people in any discipline have natural talent. My late friend Fred could pick up almost any musical instrument and play it well. He took clarinet lessons – his first love – but played the banjo and the piano without any instruction. My cousin Ben can build anything you describe to him like some combination of MIT and MacGyver. My wife can make a technical report read like a Steven King novel.
But mostly, to be good at something, you have to follow directions and learn from a few mistakes (like skipping the instructions). Even the people with exceptional natural talent (in fact, especially those people) will warn you off pretending that you know more than you do. Anyone who has baked a cake without follow the recipe carefully will tell you how unhappy the results are with just a little too much of this or a little too little of that.
It may wind up being a burnt offering, but it is not of pleasing odor.
When the founders of our country wrenched the government from the hands of kings and despots, they wrote out the recipe for the plain old citizens who entered public service to follow. To be sure, government has gotten considerably more complicated since Alexander Hamilton decided not to throw away his shot, but there are no ingredients that can be left out of the Constitution. Lots of people have held office so successfully that they make it look easy. Of course, if we could ask Washington or Lincoln, Shirley Chisholm or Barbara Jordan, Oliver Wendell Homes or Thurgood Marshall if their leadership was as effortless in providing as it appeared in the result, they would laugh. Anyone who came to that conclusion by observing only the result of careful preparation and methodical effort would likely be as superficial as that perception.
And yet, there remain people who look at positions of great responsibility for the nation and its citizens and ask, “How hard can it be?” Willfully ignorant of the Constitution and stubbornly uninformed, they believe the quick-start guide is for incompetents and the user’s manual is for morons.
I don’t want to sit on the chair assembled by the guy who skipped the directions. I don’t want to suffer through a concert by the person whose vocal training is a morning shower. I don’t want to ski behind a boat navigated by someone who learned on a Schwinn. Maybe they have the natural talent of my cousin Ben, but if it turns out they don’t, and they are endangering us all, someone should take away
the hammer, the mic or the keys.
In the process, we just might restore the Constitution.
When you have seen it, you too shall be gathered to your kin, just as your brother Aaron was.
Like every rabbi, I have attended to bereaved family members in almost every circumstance of death. Some deaths approach slowly and inevitably, like a train arriving across a plain with a distant horizon. Some deaths burst onto the scene like a balloon popping at a birthday party. Illness, accident, age, crime, self-infliction – mostly all they have in common is the finality of the result.
One set of experiences involved a woman who lost her mother to a protracted battle with cancer. Weeks of hospitalizations preceded the agonizing last days when life slipped away by inches. Some few years later, her father collapsed suddenly during a vacation and could not be revived. I asked her which was better – the chance to say goodbye, but watching her mother suffer, or the sudden loss of a vital presence in her life without the opportunity for a last moment. Her response: They both suck.
It is so like us as human beings to cast everything in terms of how it affects us. But what about the person facing death? Other than convicted perpetrators of capital crimes, no one among us knows the day of their death. There are plenty of pieces of advice about living as if today were your last day, but they, too, do not really imagine the impending moment.
(The best-known Jewish teaching: Repent one day before your death. And since no one knows the day of their death, repent today.)
I understand the impetus of people who face a proximate death to seek out pleasurable experiences. Whether it is a visit to an exotic place, a special meal, a sensual indulgence, time with loved ones or whatever, the focus on compacting experiences of life into an abbreviated timeline is understandable from people who cling to life.
But imagine being told the day you will die – maybe not the exact date, but the events that will point to the time your time will come. Imagine there will be no option for distraction, no diversion from the inevitable, no swerving off the road to finality. A cue will present itself: a horn will sound, a light will flash, a word will be spoken out of context or – as our case in point – you will arrive at your destination, see it and die. (For those unfamiliar with the reference in the verse, Moses was instructed to accompany his brother to the top of a hill, remove Aaron’s priestly vestments and place them on Aaron’s son. Aaron did not come down the hill.)
It is a cliché that when faced with mortal danger, your life passes before your eyes. Maybe it is true; the entire Book of Deuteronomy is a description by Moses of the events of his life since leaving Egypt in enough detail to last almost all of the 959 verses. But what would you discover?
I suspect (and I take the clue from this very verse) that I will stand before the evidence of what is left undone in my life. Not for lack of trying, not for lack of good intention, and not merely because there comes a time when any one life, including mine, will come to an end. Simply, the day after you die the sun will rise and set just as it did every day since you emerged into this world. Each of us is a part of things much larger than ourselves.
I am not making a case against mourning nor arguing for resignation at our inherently unfinishable lives. Instead, I am making a case for something just short of immortality. Leaving something incomplete makes it necessary for someone else – another life – to pick up where we left off. You likely won’t get to choose who that other life is, and you will have no control over the direction that other life takes. But every relinquishing facilitates a renewal.
For those left behind – the bereaved – loss and broken-heartedness is normal and necessary. With or without a chance to conclude a relationship, the empty space in the next-day’s world is a reminder of what has come to an end.
But I hope that on the day you will die, even if you love life as much as I do (which is a lot), you will discover what Moses did: that others are waiting to pick up what you left off and that, in that way, you are a participant in the fulfillment of the life you are about to surrender.
I usually have something political to say as part of these columns, and this one is no exception, so if you are satisfied with this little life meditation, stop reading now.
I have never been a fan of the bedtime prayer, “Now I lay me down to sleep.” I can’t think of anything worse to suggest to a child who already has concerns about what lurks in the darkness, “if I should die before I wake…” The traditional bedtime ritual for Judaism includes a similar representation, though a little less ominous. But I get the intention. As Don McLean (almost) sang, “This [could be] the day that I die.”
Cultivating an awareness of work left undone ought to make someone a little conscientious about how to spend their day. But here’s the fact: the person whose energy is devoted to serving himself is likely to realize on the day he dies that the only work left undone is deconstructing what he left behind.