As a people, we pride ourselves on education and place great value in continuing to grow and learn throughout all the stages of our lives. We take delight in the number of Jewish Nobel Prize winners and there are endless jokes about our children becoming doctors, lawyers, and accountants.
With this in mind, one might expect that our sages would have had no trouble with basic arithmetic. Yet, while every Jewish child can tell you that there are 613 mitzvot(commandments/obligations), there doesn’t seem to be a consensus as to which mitzvot make the list or how they got that total. Rabbis and teachers throughout the years have provided many thoughts on this matter without reaching consensus. In fact, if we count all of the mitzvot enumerated on all of the lists we will quickly surpass the number 613. In the Babylonian Talmud, Makkot 23b-24a, our rabbis seem less interested in figuring out which mitzvot count and more concerned with teaching us an existential lesson. Our sages report that the prohibitive commandments total 365, which coincide with the number of days in the solar year, and the imperative commandments number 248, a sum ascribed to the number of bones and main organs in the human body. Meaning to say, that we should be mindful of our obligations all of the time and with all of our being.
Take another example from daily prayer. When we stand and recite the Amidah (the silent Standing Prayer), we are sometimes invited to rise for the "Shemoneh Esrei" (another name for the Amidah which means 18 and refers to the number of blessings in the weekday Amidah). However, if you count carefully, you will notice that there are actually 19 blessings.
When we are in synagogue and are making sure we have reached the appropriate number for a minyan (10) we are taught not to count the people in the room. Some of our sages learn this from the prophet Hosea (2:1) when he said "the number of the people of Israel shall be like that of the sands of the sea, which cannot be measured or counted." From these words our tradition extrapolated a warning about the danger of counting people since we might be tempted, consciously or unconsciously, to place a different value on them when we anoint someone number 1 and someone else number 2.
As we take a closer look into this week’s Parasha, Terumah, it is easy to be overwhelmed with all of the instructions that go into building the Mishkan. A laundry list of precious materials and what seems to be something like the multi-page building manual that comes with almost everything purchased at Ikea. So many pieces, so many steps, so many details, and so much can go wrong. It is advised to be precise and make sure we are counting properly and following each and every instruction.
One of the items to be constructed in the Parasha is the menorah. We are told, "You shall make me a lampstand of pure gold…six branches shall come from its sides; three branches from one side of the menorah and three branches from the other side of the menorah (25:31-32)." This doesn’t seem too difficult. The Israelites were to create a seven-branched menorah. Maybe, if we can’t seem to always be able to count to 613, 19, or 10; we can count to 7.
One of my favorite commentators, the Ben Ish Hai (Rabbi Yosef Chaim from Baghdad- 1 September 1835 – 30 August 1909), teaches that each of the seven branches of the menorah is connected to a particular one of Judaism’s holidays. He suggests that the middle branch, the branch that all others rely and need to exist, is connected with Shabbat. He goes on to teach that the three branches on each side are a symbol of the other days of the week. While it is true that the basic unit of time is the seven-day week, Shabbat stands at the center of the week. Shabbat is like the central stem of the menorah, with the days Wednesday-Thursday-Friday on its right, and the days Sunday-Monday-Tuesday on its left [following the Hebrew order right-to-left], all drawing their sustenance from the center of the week, from Shabbat. For the Ben Ish Hai, and many other Hasidic masters, the liturgy on Shabbat evening provides an additional hint when we sing the words "yamin u’smol tif’rotzi – you shall spread out to the right and to the left" in the L’cha Dodi prayer. Using this logic, rather than Shabbat being the 7th day of the week it is actually the 4th. So instead of counting 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, Shabbat; we are gifted with the image of counting 4, 5, 6, Shabbat, 1, 2, 3. (Notice that in the second model Shabbat is never more than 3 days away!)
As we enter this Shabbat, reflecting on the teaching of the Ben Ish Hai, we can ask ourselves what is at our core. What do we place in the center? Does what we hold spread out and lift each of our days just a little bit? We can know that it is from a place of slowing down, of contemplation, of joy, and of renewal that others are elevated. Shabbat is so much more than the weekend. It is a sacred center – the center of the week, of the entire Jewish calendar, and of our lives and it has power to illuminate everything.