Life, the Universe, and Everything?

Bemidbar By :  JTS Alumni Posted On May 27, 2006 / 5766 | Torah Commentary

This week’s commentary was written by Rabbi Murray Ezring, Rabbi of Temple Israel, Charlotte, North Carolina.

Science fiction aficionados know the answer. The answer is forty-two, or so wrote Douglas Adams in his classic Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Numbers have always been important in Jewish tradition. So Adams might be correct. The number forty-two may contain tremendous religious significance. Four plus two equals six, the number of books in the Mishnah. Four times two equals eight, the number representing the covenant we have shared with our creator since the days of our patriarch Abraham. Six times seven, the result of multiplying the six days of the mundane workweek by the sanctity of Shabbat. On second thought, maybe Adams was just using forty-two to represent something that he could not put into words. Maybe forty-two is his symbol to describe how we create our dialogue with God and feel the holy one’s presence in our life. Four minus two equals two is the answer to mystical, spiritual searching, the relationship between one human and the one unique divine being.

Two is also the year, following the Exodus from Egypt, during which B’midbar , the fourth book of the Torah, begins its narrative. Following the acceptance of the covenant at Sinai, a census is taken to establish the size of Israel’s military. The 603,550 men of military age is the exact same as the census taken a year earlier. The tribal tallies all end in round numbers of zero or fifty. Perhaps the Torah is giving us a hint that these are not necessarily real numbers, but symbolic. B’midbar is the only book of the Torah which shares a Hebrew pseudonym parallel to its English name “Hummash Hapekudim” (EJ) The Book of the Census (Numbers).

Biblical numbers often represent concepts. Three may refer to the elements of the covenant: God/Torah, Israel/the land, and Israel/the people. Four could represent completeness as the phrase “four corners of the earth,” which implies the whole world. Seven stands for holiness. Ten implies wholeness as in Aseret Hadibrot, the ten statements of God on Sinai. Hundreds and thousands are large complete amounts that multiply the magnitude of the first digits. If this is really the case, perhaps the surprise repetition of 603,550 as the total of the census has a deeper, spiritual meaning. Although the number did not change, something significant was changing as our ancestors worked their way through their wilderness. They were learning what was most important in cementing their relationship with Hakadosh Barukh Hu, the holy one.

B’midbar relates the wanderings of Israel from the wilderness of Sinai to the borders of the Promised Land. Interspersed, we discover the sharing of law revealed on Sinai. We might expect the travels to be relatively easy. After all, Israel is accompanied by God, during its trek across the desert. Moses communicates with the holy one in the tent of meeting. Yet even God’s presence cannot pacify the people. Fear of battle, hunger, thirst, jealousy, and political aspirations combine to lead Israel to complain, assimilate and rebel. Ancient Israel faces the wilderness, our people’s training ground, and they do not fare extremely well. Eventually a new nation emerges from the wilderness: a people ready to take the land promised to them and build a country ruled by God’s law.

Is the cultural wilderness in which we live today all that different from the desert our ancestors traversed? Foul language, drugs, violence, a vanishing morality, and lack of ethics confront us every day. The lure of the American dream seems to place wealth, sports, music, and the mall above the strength of Jewish culture, ritual, and community. Our generation, like the generation of the wilderness, is struggling to rediscover the beauty and spiritual fulfillment that Judaism and Torah have to offer. Our hunger leads us away from kashrut. Our thirst leads us to spirits and other artificial means of feeling good in our world. Our desire to assimilate leads us to abandon our rituals, holy days, and covenant. As our ancestors feared they would perish in the wilderness, we listen to the doomsayers prophesying the disappearance of American Jewry and the failure of our movement because our numbers are shrinking. 

Midrash B’midbar Rabbah (1:7) teaches us that the Torah had to be given and received in the wilderness. Why? Anyone who cannot humble him or her self in order to open up to the teachings of Judaism cannot acquire wisdom, understanding, and Torah.

Let us open ourselves to learn from the Biblical census. There is a lesson hidden in the number 603,550. If great numbers remain the same, then it is not success, it is stagnation. Look closely at the census figure. When we add the digits together the sum is nineteen, the number of blessings in the Amidah, our silent personal prayer with God. It is not numbers that represent success, but the commitment we make to God, Torah, and Israel. If our faith is strong, our commitment steady, our study, and prayer invigorating, we will remain an undeniable force in the world. Adams was right. The answer is forty-two, or more precisely four minus two. The strength of our personal relationship with God and Torah is the future of Judaism and our movement. As we continue to deepen and share our faith, we will be able to more fully experience and share the blessings we receive from our creator.

The publication and distribution of the JTS Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.