Monthly Archives: May 2017

Biblical Math

A text version of my sermon from Shabbat services on 5/27/17

Those of you who know me even moderately well probably know that I am what would today be called ‘math challenged.’  I remember always being this way, from the time math became a bit more complicated, say when I was in 3rd or 4th grade and we started in with long division.  That was pretty much the end of my successful math career.  From that point forward it was a serious struggle.  Fractions made me crazy.  Algebra intimidated me and made very little sense.  Trigonometry left me wondering if I was going to graduate from high school.  In the end – and I am convinced to this day with some help from God Almighty – or at least my trig teacher who had rachmanas on me – I did graduate, and have happily not studied math since I was in 10th grade.  Thank God for calculators!

But what is a ‘mathless’ rabbi to do with this week’s Torah portion, Bamidbar?  It is first of all the beginning of the book of the Torah that we call in English – Numbers!  The text begins with a census, which is at the end of the day doing math, counting and adding.  And the portion itself is filled with numbers in every chapter.  Here are just a few examples, chosen randomly:  59,300 (the number of males aged 20 or over from the tribe of Shimon);  603,550 (the total number of males eligible for military service among the Israelites);  22,273 (the number of first born males).  There is even a math problem in the portion.  At one point the text says you have to multiply 273 by the number 5 and you will arrive at an answer of 1365.

Of course the numbers here serve a purpose.  The Israelites needed to know what their number was, how many of them were eligible for military service, how many of them would be responsible for conducting worship at the Tabernacle, or for carrying the objects of the Tabernacle when they moved to a new camp.  But over time Judaism became wary of counting people, eventually preferring not use numbers to count people at all.  That is why in Exodus one of the counting techniques is for each person to submit a half shekel, and then you count the shekels.  Of if you’ve ever been in a traditional shul, and they are wondering if there are enough people for a minyan, they’ll use the motzi instead of using numbers to find out of there are 10.  Try it!  10 words!

There are a variety of explanations as to why Jews don’t count Jews.  One idea is that counting makes people distinct, it in a sense separates one person from another, and we don’t want Jews to be separate, we want Jews to be communal, to be together and united.  But I’ve always suspected that the tradition was simply uncomfortable assigning a number to a person.  Once a person becomes a number they aren’t an individual any more.  They are not a name or a face, they are not part of a family, they don’t have a story.  Instead, they are a statistic, to be analyzed, to be mathematically manipulated, to be thought about in abstract terms.  And there is something about that that is dehumanizing, that takes away our individuality and our sense of self worth.       Some of you may remember the 1981 Police album Ghost in the Machine.  There is a song on that record Invisible Sun, and one of the lines is ‘I don’t ever want to play the part of a statistic on a government chart.’

To me that is a problem of our internet – computer driven age.  We have more ways to turn people into numbers today than we ever have before.  I imagine you know that as you use your iPhone, or your computer, every click is tracked, and there are algorithms at work that make you into a statistic based on those clicks.  This is done to communities as well, or even to entire areas of the country, with what they call ‘big data,’ which is mostly a collection of information about Google searches in your area.

Now there is some accuracy in these numbers , and I am sure there is something important that can be learned from them.  But we certainly know that numbers never tell the full story.  Probably the best recent example of this is the presidential election.  All of the numbers, all of the statistics, predicted that Hillary would win that election and Donald Trump would lose.  But Donald Trump is president of the United States.  And you may remember that right after the election all of the reporters, and all of the sociologists, and all of the pundits, were wringing their hands and saying ‘how could we have gotten it so wrong?’  And I think part of the answer is that they were paying attention to the poll numbers as they came in, but they weren’t paying attention to the people, to the communities, to the personal stories and emotions of the people who ultimately voted.

Unfortunately in our culture today we do the same thing.  We commonly evaluate others – and sometimes even ourselves – by numbers.  What is a person’s salary?  What zip code do they live in?  Even how many years did they live, or how many children and grandchildren did they have?  And we tend to believe that when the numbers are high the story is good.  But I’ve known plenty of people – and I am sure you have too – who have lived long lives, had many children, been paid high salaries, and at the end of the day were pretty miserable.

And the reason for that is all of the things that define the quality of human life that cannot be quantified.  You can’t put a number on the quality of a person’s relationships.  You can’t put a number on a person’s emotional intelligence, on their ability to cope with trauma and tragedy, on the joy or humor or love that they bring into the world.  And I would argue that all of the things – much more so than the numbers – give us a true sense of the quality of our lives.

So truth be told I am not a big fan of this week’s Torah portion and its penchant for counting people and adding them up as if they were something to be packaged or sold.  Instead I much prefer the approach of the prophet Hosea, captured in the very first verse of this morning’s haftara.  והיה מספר בני ישראל כחול הים אשר לא ימד ולא יספר – Behold the number of the people Israel shall be like that of the sands of the sea, which cannot be measured or counted – instead, they shall simple be called ‘Children of the Living God.’

And that, at least it seems to me – tells more about the Jewish people than any number ever could.  Now that is my kind of math.

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The Window

The window was right there, just a couple of feet to my left.  I was in fourth grade, Mrs. Cronk’s class (yes that was actually her name!), Thomas Jefferson School.  My classmates and I sat and squirmed, stared at the chalk board, poked at one another when the teacher’s back was turned, sometimes sighed with boredom, sometimes learned something new and surprising, still remembered to this day.  We watched the clock at the front of the room, the minutes ticking by at a painfully slow pace, three o’clock our magic hour of release.

But my view from the window called to me.  In the late summer the leaves of the trees were still green.  Just beyond that blue house on the corner with the worn front step was a field where I often played football.  And at the end of the street, at the edge of my vision, was a yard where a friendly dog lived.  He would be sleeping just a about now, in the shade of that tree in their front yard.

In fall the leaves turned, and I watched this miraculous process unfold through my classroom window, day after day.  I knew as I sat at my desk that acorns were collecting at the base of an old oak tree, that the wind was blowing fallen leaves along the sidewalk, that a leaf pile I had jumped in just yesterday was waiting for another chance.  The air was crisper, and out in the school yard a gym class played kickball.

In the winter mounds of snow piled up in the school parking lot.  When I stole a glance out my window I could see the largest of those piles to my left.  We had played king of the hill on it that morning, reluctantly entering our classrooms wet and cold, with flushed cheeks, numb hands and feet.  There was unfinished business on that greying mound of snow, if only the clock would somehow find its way to ‘3.’

In early spring my window framed a view of melting ice and snow, of grey trees silently and inscrutably watching the length of the days, feeling the temperature, their tops bare and exposed to the still cold wind.  A fifty degree day was a revelation!  Looking out my window I knew what the walk home would be.  We would shed our jackets, kick stones down the street, poke at the melting snow with sticks fallen from the trees during the winter, stomp in a puddle or two just for good measure.

For school might hold us for a while, but outside the window was an adventure waiting to happen, each walk home a journey of exploration, with a sense of freedom and independence, of possibility, of becoming.  The window looked out on my small home town, the narrow streets, the neatly trimmed lawns, the cracked sidewalks and running rows of hedges.  But it also looked out on a big world, grand and open, mountains, rivers, hills, vast plains.  A day would come when I would go there, too.

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