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In Melbourne Shabbat begins Fri 3 Apr 2020 06:52 PM and ends Sat 4 Apr 2020 07:50 PM

Permutations and combinations

י"ג כסלו ה' אלפים תשע"ב

The President of our Synagogue is a lovely guy, with a strong commitment to Judaism, but he just doesn't appreciate gematria.

I try to find something to say between each aliya every Shabbos. Sometimes I just recap where we're up to in the story, but usually I look for something with a bit more depth to titillate the imagination of our regulars. We're fairly eclectic in our tastes and you might find us flitting between an ethical teaching, a play on words, a chassidic interpretation, or a piece of numerology during the break between one reading to the next.

Most congregants go with the flow. They'll listen relatively respectfully and ask a question when they don't understand. I enjoy a bit of backchat from the crowd, because I figure that if I've got them thinking; even if they're disagreeing with me, then I've done my job of bringing Jews the Torah and Torah to the Jews.     

But Jeff just doesn't enjoy gematria or other types of numerology.

Every Hebrew letter has a numerical value. Alef = 1, Beis = 2 and etc. and adding up letters gives you the unique numerical value, or gematria, of each word and phrase. Comparing and contrasting the relative value of different words and phrases often affords surprising insight into the text and allows us to correlate seemingly unconnected Torah topics.

Other than gematria, other tricks of the Torah scholar's trade might include roshei teivos - acronyms and abbreviations, as well as a number of even more obscure methods of interpretation such as the substitution of letters, repunctuating to find new meanings and combining separate words together.

I admit it does sometimes seem somewhat random. Jeff frequently observes, often after I've just introduced a particularly obscure piece of numerology, that you can read whatever you wish into numbers and if you try hard enough you could probably always find a tenuous connection between topics.

He's right, in a way. These methods are described as parparos d'chochmo, the condiments of wisdom. They're not the main meal of Judaism; just the seasoning that gives Judaism its taste. Torah is G-dly and infinite and all wisdom is contained within her words. You'd never decide a law on the basis of gematria, but used properly, they can help give a new and deeper appreciation and understanding of the text.

Take one of the most famous examples of word and number play in the Torah, which we'll be reading this week in Shul. As Ya'akov leaves his father-in-law's house on his journey back to Israel, he sends a message to his brother, Esav. Im Lavan garti, I have lived with Lavan.

Rashi pointed out that the gematria of garti is 613, which is also the amount of commandments in the Torah and thus interprets Ya'akov's message to be saying throughout the years that I lived with the evil Lavan I kept the 613 commandments. It's as if Ya'akov is warning his brother not to mess with him; "if I could keep the mitzvos while surrounded by wickedness, then G-d will surely protect me from any schemes you may be plotting against me.

But would Jeff be convinced? So the word garti equals 613, it's surely not the only word in the torah with that value. Where do you get mitzvos from I have dwelled? Why would Rashi assume that Ya'akov is doing more than just describing his living arrangements for the last 20 years and is rather making a metaphysical point about his commitment to the commandments?

Gematria is more than random word play. Legitimate tools of torah interpretation see the text as a living document; an interplay of content and context, with each letter, word and phrase redolent with meaning. In our example, the correlation between garti and mitzva observance is deeper than just adding up the letters; rather, the context leads to the conclusion.

The word garti, from the root ger - stranger or convert, is unusual. Had Ya'akov just wished to say I lived with Lavan, there are other, seemingly more appropriate verbs that he could have used. Garti has connotations of I was a stranger; I was different, I never fit in with the wicked people because I lived and acted differently than they. Ya'akov was claiming 'that the whole time I was away from home, I stayed true to the lessons that I learned in my parent's home'.

It was in this context that the rabbis observed that there is also numeric support to this supposition.  I was able to keep the 613 mitzvos, even in Lavan's house, because I remained a stranger to their way of life.

Wherever a Jew is, no matter how far from home he may have travelled, he can always maintain his connection to the words and letters of Torah; by appreciating the value of each letter and word of G-dliness and seeking out the underlying purpose of each phrase and phase of life.

Dedicated to Jeff Alford in honour of his 40th birthday this Shabbos

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