How Much?: Bamidbar 5774 by Cantor Lipp

Tue, 05/27/2014 - 9:15am -- AJ Blog

Excerpt from interview with Bill Gates from Rolling Stone:

"I agree with people like Richard Dawkins that mankind felt the need for creation myths. Before we really began t understand disease and the weather and things like that, we sought false explanations for them. Now science has filled in some of the realm -- not all -- that religion used to fill.

"But the mystery and beauty of the world is overwhelmingly amazing, and there's no scientific explanation of how it came about. To say that it was generated by random numbers, that does seem, you know, sort of  an uncharitable view. I think it makes sense to believe in God but exactly what decision in your life you make differently because of it, I don't know."

One of the smartest and THE wealthiest man in the world, Bill Gates tells us that we can’t explain the universe with random numbers or even, I would add, by the two with which he made his fortune.

The first census in the book of Numbers seem as inflated as Bill Gates’ fortune. 

Although the common Hebrew name for the book of Numbers is B’midbar, In the Wilderness, the rabbis also called it Sefer haPkudim, the Book of Counting. It begins with a census of the fighting age men in the Israelite came and we have to wonder whether there were really over 600,000. Our own Humash suggests the word elef (translated commonly as ‘thousand’) may have meant contingent, a group of 5 or 6 men which would place the actual military census closer to 3000 fighting men. 

We can’t really handle large numbers in an immediate, visual way. Some Prime cultures don't even have words for numbers above 3 or 4. We may chuckle but even with our advanced calculus, most of us can't 'see' a minyan without counting just to get to 10. Like our less technologically sophisticated human brethren, we also don't have a normative ability to handle numbers beyond 3 or 4.

There's a midrash on the first verse that relies on our ability to remember things in groups of 3. The Torah is given in three ways: By Fire, Water and Wilderness. 

The Fire of Torah is the passion for learning, a curiosity that consumes us to always study. At the Cantors Convention, novelist/Hazzan Lyle Rockler played a cantorial piece for us as part of his presentation about his book Chazzonos. He said he had heard it 2000 times at least. Now that’s passion! Without passionate curiosity, our learning will be bloodless and unsustainable.  

The Water of Torah represents the cool, calm ability to reflect on that learning with logic and reason. We need passion to engage with but we need our cooler mental faculties to evaluate that learning. Fire without water can lead to extremism in thought and action and can literally and figuratively consume us and the point of the learning itself. 

The Wilderness of Torah represents an ability to avoid excess, to be able, when necessary, to articulate the absolute minimum we need. Futher, when we find ourselves in a chaotic place -- professionally, personally, emotionally, intellectually -- Torah can be part of the organizing antidote by which we make sense of our world and our places within it. 

When we listened to the playing of the 8 minute recording of Pierre Pinchik’s Roza d’Shabbes, the Mystery of the Sabbath, there was a slight pause about half way through. It was a digital rendering of a 78 phonograph record which had limited space/time for long pieces of music so when you listened, you had to pause and flip it over to side B. 

Shabbat is a moment when we take a pause in the sometimes mysterious unfolding of our lives -- ornamental, hopefully filled with beauty and aesthetic -- so that we can engage in passion, reason and an unflinching forward motion to continually work towards understanding and an appreciation of the universe we inhabit. 

Shabbat Shalom.

David Lipp