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Living Our Lives on the Side of Life

04/04/2024 09:46:25 AM


Rabbi Micah Peltz

One of the many ways we find meaning in our texts and our world is through gematria, Jewish mystical math. Each Hebrew letter also represents a number, and sometimes those numbers can give us additional insights.  As we prepare for Shabbat this week, there are two numbers that are on my mind:  8 and 180.  8 because the name of our Torah portion is Shemini, which means “eighth.”  And 180 because yesterday marked the 180th day since October 7.  How do these numbers speak to each other, and speak to us, at this moment?  

Our Torah reading begins on the eighth day after a seven day ordination ceremony where Aaron and his sons officially became kohanim, priests.  After all the work of building the mishkan, the tabernacle, it is finally time to use it to bring God’s presence into the community.  The Talmud compares these seven days of celebration to the seven days of creation.  Now, on the eighth day, it is time to go to work.  Rabbi Harold Kushner writes that here the eighth day represents the challenges of living “in the day-to-day world of ordinary events.”  The number 8 signifies both a sense of completeness, the task of building the mishkan is finished, and also a sense of uncertainty. Will this actually work? What will happen next? It does work, God’s presence does appear, but immediately afterwards we have the tragic story of Nadav and Avihu, Aaron’s sons, who are killed after offering a “strange fire.” As can happen in life, that sweet moment of completeness is fleeting.  

And this brings us to the other significant number this week, 180.  It has now been over six months since terrorists invaded Israel, killing, raping, and kidnapping its citizens.  The ripple effects from the heinous attack radiate out from Israel and Gaza to the rising tide of vitriolic antisemitism here and elsewhere.  The milestone of 180 days makes us pause and reflect on where we are, and to consider how we move forward.  There is no question that this is a just war, but the challenge, as it has been since the first day, is how Israel can best fight a just war justly.  This is an extremely difficult task, as we were reminded once again with the heartbreaking friendly fire incident made by the IDF that killed the seven aid workers from World Central Kitchen.  This is yet another tragedy of this war, and one that will need to be investigated, as the IDF has said it would.  And it is here that the number 180 becomes instructive.  As anyone who has ever given tzedakah knows, the Hebrew letters that make up the number 18 are het and yud, which spell Hai, life.  180 is “life” multiplied by 10.  Rabbi Yitz Greenberg writes that the main teaching of Judaism is to live our lives on the side of life.  He teaches that the Torah begins by God creating a world that moves towards life.  The text moves from chaos to order, inanimate objects to living things, and plants and trees to human beings, created in the image of God, which are the most capable of creating and sustaining life.  Choosing life, as the Torah teaches at its end, is a mitzvah that guides us through the challenges of ordinary and extraordinary events.  As our parashah and October 7 both remind us, life can be disrupted in terrible ways.  But as the resilience of Israelis and Jews around the world, including in our own community, along with the support we have received from other corners also remind us, life can also be enriched and sustained in so many loving and beautiful ways.  May these examples give us strength, and inspire us to always strive to live our lives on the side of life.        

Sun, July 14 2024 8 Tammuz 5784