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Wednesday, November 26, 2014

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A celebration of numbers

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With Rosh Chodesh Sivan just around the corner, the holiday of Shavuot can’t be far behind.

 Shavuot, the holiday of weeks, is the culmination of counting seven weeks from near the beginning of Pesach and leading up to the harvest and the giving of the Torah to the Jewish people. It’s a foundational holiday in Jewish history, one of the three pilgrimage festivals that united all of ancient Israel within the land – ritually, nationally and economically.

Shavuot represents receiving the gift of Torah and the beginning of the Jewish transition toward text and discourse. It’s a time for celebration, study, all-night text sharing and spiritual Torah insights that usually occur best around 3 a.m.

It’s of no minor significance that the holiday itself is named for a number unit – seven. Shavuot means “weeks,” a collection of seven days. In fact, since Pesach, Jews have counted the Omer by week and day, culminating in the holiday of Shavuot. Admitting that this is not even subtle, it’s appropriate to turn our attention to numbers as the month of Sivan begins and we prepare for Shavuot.

Sivan itself connects to a world event that overwhelms us with numbers. Noah’s Ark came to rest in the month of Sivan and the flood began to recede. The repetitive aspect of the story of Noah’s Ark is how many numbers appear within the text: the cubit measures, Noah’s three sons, the pairs of animals, the various different numbers of pairs of animals, the day the rain started, how many days it rained, how many days it didn’t rain, how many days until birds flew, etc.

Clearly, Sivan invites us to embrace numbers. Yet moving from Pesach to Shavuot, from slavery to revelation, the narrative plays with the specific number 3 time and again. Moses is the third child born in his family. He’s hidden at home for three months, at which point his mother and his sister place him in an ark (reminiscent of Noah, who had three sons), where Pharaoh’s daughter saves him. Three women at the water save the third child who is three months old.

As Israel camps at Mount Sinai and prepares to receive the Torah, Moses instructs them to spend three days in preparation for Divine Revelation. Although the experience itself is so potentially overwhelming that, according to many midrashim, it’s life threatening, all of Israel is kept safe, since according to the Talmud, after all, we all have three parents: mother, father and God.

Eventually we will learn that the angels serenade God by singing the word “Holy” three times. We will imitate them and sing “Kadosh” three times. The Rabbis will construct our daily prayers around regular communication with God – three times every day.

Within Jewish law, a person is ritually empowering themselves toward obligation by consistently performing a mitzvah three times. It’s the number that represents spiritual strength and commitment.

The Torah has three sections (Torah, Prophets, Scrolls), which fits perfectly with a people of three categories (Kohen, Levi, Israel).

It’s no wonder that an ancient sage noted with regard to Shavuot: “Blessed is He who is everywhere, who gave a three-part Torah to a three-part nation by the third [child], on the third day in the third month.”

The holiday of weeks celebrates our receiving the Torah and reminds us that the wisdom of Torah fills our world. Our math teachers were correct: there does come a day when everything boils down to numbers.

Rachael Turkienicz is the director of Rachaelscentre.org.

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