Adult B’nei Mitzvah Class of 2014: Sylvia Sukop – “Numbers”


I am blessed to have some of my very dearest friends here tonight. One thing they all know about me is that I am linear. I like things ordered.

This week’s Torah portion, the one we’ll be chanting tomorrow, is in the Book of Numbers.

I have to say: I like numbers. They promise not only accuracy, but a system, predictability—order.

Last year in a class she taught at BCC, our friend Rabbi Rachel Adler said that one of the things she loves about Shabbat services is that you know what’s going to happen, what’s next.

That idea was a revelation to me, and it made me realize it’s something I’ve always loved about liturgy too, even before I became Jewish. Out in the world, in daily life, we don’t always know what’s going to happen. Generally speaking, in a house of prayer, we do.

The very book you hold in your hands is called a siddur, the Hebrew word for “order,” and it sets forth the order of our ritual prayers.

In Hebrew, the Book of Numbers is known as B’midbar, In the Wilderness. It gets its English name, Numbers, from all the counting that takes place.

A recurring theme in the Book of Numbers—and throughout the Torah—is the military census: counting the men, young and old, fit for fighting.

Battles and deaths—then as now—take their toll.

With numbers in the news and in my portion, I decided to generate my own list to share with you, from 1 to 13.

The number 1 is for the first time. Tonight I am remembering many of my Jewish firsts—the first time I visited BCC (I came alone), the first time I met Bonnie who would later become my partner (I was a volunteer greeter that night and she had come to say Kaddish on her father’s Yarzeit), the first time I entered a Mikveh (on the day that culminated my journey to becoming Jewish), the first time I danced with a Torah scroll, the first time I read out the names of the dead at High Holidays, the first time I said Kaddish for a loved one of my own (my brother Alex).

2 is the number of Torah verses that most of us will chant tomorrow. We were happy to share this Mitzvah as a group, and we have all gained a special appreciation for the challenge taken up by our 13-year-old counterparts—most of whom chant many more verses than that.

3 is the number of patriarchs of the Jewish people: Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. It is also, tragically, the number of Israeli teenagers whose kidnapping and murder last month set in motion the latest round of violence there. Their names are Naftali, Gilad and Eyal.

4 is the number of matriarchs of the Jewish people: Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah. Four is also the number of young Palestinian boys—cousins from the same family—killed last week while playing on the beach in Gaza. Their names are Mohammad, Ismail, Zakariya, and Ahed. They are among more than 150 Palestinian children killed in the current conflict.

5: The Torah consists of the 5 Books of Moses, also known as the Pentateuch. Jewish tradition says the books were written by God, but many Jews believe there were multiple authors and that the books were probably composed over a period of several centuries.

6 is the number of days it took God to create the world. Six is also the number of months it took our class to prepare for becoming B’nei Mitzvah.

7 is the number of divine completion, the day God rested. It’s the Sabbath and the sabbatical. It’s the seven lights on our temple menorah and the seven days of sitting shiva. It’s also the seven blessings (sheva brachot) that we offer couples at their weddings.

Speaking of weddings: The number 8 had an ignominious run as Proposition 8, which kept many couples waiting years for the legal right to marry. On the upside: 8 days is the length of two happy Jewish holidays, Sukkot and Hanukka. And circumcision takes place on a Jewish boy’s eighth day of life.

9: Ramadan is the ninth and holiest month of the Islamic calendar, a period of fasting and prayer. We are currently in the month of Ramadan, which will end on Monday.

10: 10 plagues in Egypt, 10 Commandments at Mt Sinai, 10 Jews make a minyan.

11: The Apollo 11 moon landing happened 45 years ago this week. I remember watching it on black and white TV as a child, awed by the immensity of space and the power of technology to shrink it—how far away Neil Armstrong was, and at the same time how near he seemed, as if on that day the moon leaned in extra close to earth—like in Genesis, when the sun, the moon and 11 stars bowed to our ancestor Joseph in a dream.

OK, we’re almost finished!

12: 12 are the tribes of Israel. There are also 12 months on Judaism’s lunar calendar—except for leap years when there are 13.

13! Thirteen is my favorite number tonight. It’s not only the 13 positive attributes of God that we chant together during the High Holidays. Thirteen is my age in Jewish years and thus the perfect time to become Bat Mitzvah. 13 is the number of students in my wonderful B’nei Mitzvah class. I want to thank each one of them for sharing in this journey, and our teachers—Rabbi Heather, Cantor Juval, and Rabbi Lisa—for offering us their wisdom and patience and love.

As a Jew, I am not alone in my love of numbers. Totaled together, the numbers I just shared with you—1 through 13—equal 91. In the eminent tradition of Gematria (a sort of Jewish numerology), 91 is 9 plus 1, which equals 10. And the number 10 in Hebrew is written as the letter Yud—the first letter of God’s name. Yud hey vav hey.

As we enter into our sacred work this weekend, may God guide us in peace and toward peace.
May God bless our learning and our leaders.
And may God sustain us with compassion, grace and mercy.

Shabbat shalom.

Friday, July 25, 2014

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