the numbers’ game
The children played by the shore, allowing the ball to bounce lightly on their finger tips before they popped it over to the other side of the line. Now and then one of them dove into the sand trying to keep the ball from bouncing on the ground. Judy took a break from the game and ran over to her father Simeon who sat with his colleagues, half watching as they talked and munched olives with their bread and wine.
“Abba, they say that they have 40 and we have love! I know that 40 is good number, after all we lived 40 years in the desert, Moses went up to Sinai to receive Torah for us and stayed there 40 days, and it rained for 40 days and 40 nights in the time of Noah. I also know that I cannot live without your love and none of us can live without the love of and loving God, and so it must be good too, but what kind of number is it?”
“Ah, my wise little beauty, you always ask such wonderfully rich questions. Indeed, love is wonderful and valuable, but I am afraid, that in your game, as in one of the many puzzles of life, it is better to have 40 than love.”
Judy unhappily kicked her feet in the sand and shuffled back to her game.
a different “who knows one?”
Simeon returned his attention to his colleagues. “Our Torah teaches us many numbers, but we do not have the same intimacy with them as do our friends the Greeks.”
number of divine qualities is same as age of maturity
Antignos, his disciple, spoke up: “Yes, I have long wondered why it is that the age of maturity equals the number of divine qualities we recite on Yom Kippur! “Adonai is ever-present, all-merciful, compassionate, patient, abounding in kindness and faithfulness, treasuring up love for a thousand generations, forgiving iniquity transgression and wrongdoing and pardoning the penitent.”
“Antignos! Think of it this way…,” Joshua chimed in: “when a youngster reaches the age of puberty he or she is now like God in so many ways, especially in the ability to create new life. Such a young person must now be even more careful to be Kadosh, (holy) as Adonai, our God is holy!”
“Very good Joshua, can we continue the countdown from 13 to Love? Asked Simeon.”
Johanan replied: “Twelve is easy, there’s even an English word for the concept!”
“Don’t get carried away,” responded Simeon, “That English word will be based on a contraction of the Latin for two and ten, so that doesn’t help us much. But you forget our own history and the world around us. Jacob had 12 sons who ultimately established the 12 tribes from which we (though only two remain) are descended. My Greek colleagues tell me that at the same time in our history that we had a federation of 12 tribes, they also had a federation that was based on a group of 12 groups.”
“And now, gather close… I can only whisper this” (the group scooted up in the sand, closing the circle as the sea wind blew the words quickly away): “I understand, that some generations to come one of our young men will gather around him 12 disciples and, astounding as it may seem, farther in the future, people around the world will celebrate his birth for 12 days!”
Suddenly, Johanan who had been chewing on an olive choked at the thought and his friends had to pound him on the back to dislodge the pit.
When they all regained their composure, Nittai, of Arbel asked why the Greeks had a federation of 12 and were there, perhaps, other groups like that.
“Well,” Simeon said knowingly and dropped his voice even further, “Bakers will invent their own concept of dozen and far on the other side of this sea by whose shores our children play, a nation will arise that will be formed as if it were a baker’s federation.”
“Simeon, Stop that!” Said Antignos. “Look to the sky and you will know why we use this number! From Rosh haShannah to Rosh haShannah, the moon renews itself twelve times. We see this cycle in the world about us continuously and we have even found patterns in the sky that match each of the moon’s comings and goings. The sky shows us a cosmic federation that we here on earth mimic.”
“Yes, Antignos, you are right, but don’t deny the pleasures of the poetry, if you do, you have much to lose.”
“How can I lose the poetry, it is written right into our own Torah! We see it with the next number, eleven, where Joseph in his dream saw the eleven stars bow to his own.”
“OK Antignos you found that number,” piped in Joshua again, “but probably about the easiest is ten: think of it: toes, fingers, the generations from Adam to Noah and from Noah to Abraham, Abraham was tested ten times before he and Isaac finally left the mountain together, there were the plagues upon Egypt and the commandments Moses received on Mount Sinai. Even now, as the summer ends, we know there are ten days from Rosh haShannah to Yom Kippur, ten days to get ourselves ready for a new year. But the odd one, Simeon, is this last: from Rosh haShannah (the new year) to Yom Kippur (the day of atonement) all the other days on our calendar are based on groups of seven. Why suddenly the ten?”
“You raise a very good point Joshua. Who has a suggestion?”
Elazar tentatively cleared his throat.
“Yes,” Elazar, Simeon gently coaxed (for he knew that the timid do not learn and the impatient do not teach) “what is it?”
“Well, I have wondered about this difference for many months. I think it may have something for us to tell the whole world. You know that all the other holy days of our calendar relate to the events of our people’s history and that each one we celebrate for 7 days. But the ideas in Rosh haShannah and Yom Kippur are cosmic. They have no origin in our people’s history. They tell of the Holy One’s care for the universe, its creation and renewal. May I suggest (even though we have not yet come to that number) that seven is the Jewish number while ten (which we see so commonly around us) is the base number for the world?”
“Well expressed Elazar, thank you for your thought. Do you mean by that – that we should invite our Greek neighbors to join us in our observance of the new year and our atonement where they might feel out of place at a celebration of our liberation from slavery which they never experienced?”
Not everyone in the group was as comfortable with the Greeks as Simeon, Antignos and Elazar. Many of those seated in the sand stirred uncomfortably and Joshua almost rose to leave.
“OK, I see that this is a subject for a discourse of its own at some other time. We need refills on our refreshments. Shall we go over to the women and restock our plates?”
The men rose, stretched and slowly ambled over to the gathering of women not far away. As they collected fresh platters of olives, bread, dips and wine from the stocks maintained by the women, Simeon continued his discussion:
“We have been talking about how various numbers appear in our lives and we just passed from 13 through 10 on our way down.”
“Well…,” Shoshanna called out in her full voice from the back of the group, “you certainly came to the right people to discuss the number nine. We know it in our bodies,” she said as she moved up to the front to face Simeon. “Without nine months inside your mother you wouldn’t exist!” And all the other women chuckled knowingly as the men looked sheepishly at their feet.
“How right you are, and thank you Shoshannah. So much I owe you, my bride, and we all owe to you collectively. Our world is not only enriched, but enabled by your presence.”
“I wish to continue the numbering,” Added Miriam who stood beside Shoshanah. “We labor for nine long months carrying the future in our midst only to have you take our boys after eight short days to enter them into your covenant! Why do you separate yourselves so from we who give you life?”
At this, both the women and the men gasped and groped in the silence for a reasoned and cogent response. All eyes turned to Simeon.
Simeon bowed his head and thought, he sat down in the sand, at the dust of the feet of his wife Shoshannah and gazed into the distance inside the tent. As before, with the men when he told them of the bakers’ dozen, Simeon spoke in a hoarse whisper. “Long before our time, before Abraham, before, perhaps even Noah, I believe you women established our covenant to help guide us menfolk to know how life depends on our working with you. I also see, in an age yet to come that a time will arise when we men will yet recognize the equal parts we each play in sustaining our world. Until that time, we must remember that, even though we have different and restricted tasks and responsibilities, we are created in the image of the holy one, an image that we may not, nay, cannot diminish.”
Shoshannah reached down to help Simeon back to this feet: “Go, go back out to the sand which is like the numbers of our Jewish people, listen to the infinite waves and continue your counting. We have more food to prepare before Shabbat.”
Almost blinded by the sunlight of the shore Simeon picked up a handful of sand, let it pour slowly through his fingers and searched for his thought. “I seem able to keep only a certain number of ideas, feelings and sensations in mind at any one time. The brightness of the sun and the heat of the sand seem to have pushed out other thoughts. It is almost as though I had been juggling balls and one of you threw me two more, I would have to drop two to keep the new ones in the air with at least some of the others.”
“I too, have noticed such a phenomenon,” offered Elazar, more secure in himself after his success with the number ten. “I have tried an experiment with Antignos’ help. It is as you say. We watched a Greek juggler in the street not long ago and saw him drop some flaming torches as he added knives to the circulating objects. It was a frightening sight, but we tried to see if there were limits on how many things we could hold onto at once. I recall a saying of my father who never tired of telling me: ‘If you try to hold onto too much you won’t hold onto anything.’ But how much is too much?”
“Good, Elazar and what did you and Antignos learn from your experiment?”
“Amazingly enough,” Antignos joined in: “Seven (and sometimes one more or less, but) always basically seven!”
“Our number as I said earlier,” added Elazar almost squirming with excitement. “But why seven, I have not yet reasoned. It is a prime number, but not the smallest nor the largest. Can it have to do with the number of days in the four phases of the moon, or the fact that it is the largest prime number before our more common ten? I don’t know and I still need to learn.”
“Very good, it pleases me that you have found for yourself a project to pursue. And this leads me to another thought and your answer gives me a clue as to how to proceed. I have felt that our learning will soon need a more structured form so that those who come after us will know how to apply the lessons of Torah to their own lives. Perhaps each of you can find ways to gather the lessons we have begun into different rubrics. If we limit those rubrics to six then others will always be able to keep the whole structure in mind.”
“Master,” said Johanan, “perhaps that is why God gave Moses the Torah in only five books to make certain that even the simplest of us could always keep all of Torah in mind and still be able to do what he or she needs to accomplish!”
“A wonderful thought Johanan, said Antignos. I like that.”
“This has been a wonderful exercise my friends, the remainder must be simple, what do you think.”
Simeon continued: “We have four matriarchs: Sarah, Rebecca, Leah and Rachel. But this number offers us more: Our liberation is filled with fours we drink four cups of wine, our Torah insists four times that we tell our children about the Exodus and makes four promises of the Exodus itself. Even though our tables and chairs have four legs, this is not as stable as life could be, after all, we have four questions… a sign of instability. Is our liberation perhaps an instable state?”
“Perhaps so,” offered Antignos, “after all, the matriarchs Leah and Rachel did not get along, causing instability in Jacob’s family. But the patriarchs themselves are only three: Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. And I have learned from Pythagoras…”
“Oh, there you go again,” interrupted Johanan, “you’ve been spending too much time with those Greeks. I agree they have wonderful tools, but I fear they have some ideas we do not want.”
“Easy my boys, let us at least hear what Antignos has to say.”
“Well, Pythagoras tells me that of all the physical structures we can make, the triangle is the hardest to break. Something that stands on three points is less likely to wobble than something on two or four.”
“The two of you can rest a bit more easily. Different cultures around us seem attracted to different numbers. It is true that the Greeks seem to like the number 3.”
Again, Simeon dropped his voice: “They may in the future attempt to divide our perceived unity into a threesome… something about a father and son and something…. But perhaps your Pythagoras friend has learned something from us, I have often said that the world rests on three things: Torah, our service, and deeds of loving kindness and in years to come one of our sages will tell his disciples that the world is sustained by a different three: truth, judgement, and peace. Does Pythagoras, perhaps, spend too much time with us, Johanan or does Antignos spend too much time with him? In fact I have heard many of you, at other times, express your thoughts in triplets as though you find it easier to base your thoughts on a solid grounding in this manner. Who is to say whether the wisdom of the poetry or the physical world establishes a fact as so.”
“But look, the sun drops faster now into the sea. Soon darkness will envelope us. Are there four, three or two: air, earth, water and fire; or the sky, the waters and the earth; or is it only the sky above and the earth below?”
“We speak of evening and morning, heavens and earth… are these simply rhetorical conventions of our ancient poets or do they reflect a reality in the cosmos? Is it because our bodies are divided into two halves and that we have men and women and we live and die that Moses came down from Sinai with the two tablets of the law? Our Persian liberators saw this as two deities struggling perpetually one against the other while their Indian neighbors at least saw these two forces emerging as a yin and yang each out of the other to form a whole. What do you say, my students? How do we respond?”
The time had come for the evening Sh’ma, the disciples helped one another to their feet. The growing darkness made the game difficult to pursue and the youngsters gathered around. At the sound of the children, the women came out of the tent to join them as well. All faced east, away from the brilliance of the glowing sky, toward the darkness of the new dawn yet to come. Together they proclaimed the unity of the cosmos. And before the Love of the nothingness before them they placed their trust as they recited: “Understand this Israel: the living breathing essence of the cosmos is what we recognize as the source of all and this living breathing essence is a unified whole.”
While they say that all you need is love, we are each unique ones. How do you relate one to one in the unified whole ONE?
what is “#blogexodus”?
My friend and colleague Phyllis Sommers has thought of yet a new creative way to prepare for Pesach. You can learn more here.