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How Do I Love Numbers? Let Me Count the Ways

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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 tribes.

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 in a way that can capture profound insights.

Though I am not much of a whiz at math, nonetheless I have a fascination with numbers too.

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).

“Chokhmah” 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 number one 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 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.

So, when I look at the number of offerings and sacrifices designated by the Bible for various occasions, I am frequently mystified.

Numbers 29:13 begins a description of the offerings during the days of Tabernacles: “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.”

The descending totals for the seven days 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 10-word phrase is used, or the counting is preceded by “not” (not-one, not-two and so on).

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 an individual counting.

It is therefore not without irony that the English name of the book in which the census and the sacrifices are described 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.

Jack Moline

Jack Moline is President of Interfaith Alliance and a Conservative rabbi.