Chaim Strauchler Tradition Online | June 20, 2024

The sky above Teaneck on the 76th Yom HaAtzmaut, the 220th day of the war.

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What is it?

Teach us to count our days rightly, that we may obtain a wise heart (Psalms 90:12).

After Shavuot, we stop numbering our days each evening. It’s a bit of a letdown. We no longer say, “Today is…,” followed by a straightforward answer that might contain some small truth within life’s terrible confusion. At the conclusion of Maariv, like phantom vibration syndrome, we experience a longing for an anchor that we have become a little dependent upon.

Counting comforts. There is a child in all of us, like Sesame Street’s puppet Count, who relishes a number’s certainty. In explaining Psalms 90:12, Rashi observes that we pray for a return to Genesis-like life spans so that we might utilize our “extra” time to achieve wisdom. Ibn Ezra holds the opposite opinion: in truly internalizing that our days are but few we might value them all the more. Yet, counting is not merely a means to an end. Counting itself contains a simple wisdom.

Why does it matter?

This year, we continue to count. We count the days since October 7th. People wear masking tape with numbers. In Teaneck on Yom HaAtzmaut, drones formed the number 220 in the sky with a yellow ribbon below it (marking the days of the war in place of last year’s number 75 for the years since Independence). While the count is meant to remind us and others of the ongoing plight of the hostages, to know and share the number creates a certain security. We have something to say in the face of this horrific cruelty. Today – June 20 / Sivan 14 – is 258. How will this ongoing count (may it soon end in the safe return of our hostages) affect us?

Numbers are vessels for meaning. Ehad Mi Yodea, the Seder song first found in Ashkenazi Haggadot of the 16th century, establishes a primary religious association with each number from one to thirteen. Like an ink-blot test, we hear the number one and we immediately think of God. Two: “The tablets that Moshe brought.” Larger numbers have been invested with religious meaning. Some are popular: eighteen and six-hundred-thirteen. Some are a little esoteric: twenty-six and seventy. Some are weighted by tragedy: Six Million (often prefaced with the definitive “The”). How will the events of October 7th change our Jewish associations to the number seven?

What questions remain?

During these difficult months, we have witnessed numbers used deviously and falsely. On May 6, a U.N. office reported that more than 9,500 women and 14,500 children had been killed in Gaza. The office had been reporting similar figures for nearly two months. Yet on May 8, the reported numbers fell to fewer than 5,000 women and 8,000 children—a reduction of more than 11,000 fatalities.

On October 17, 2023, an explosion took place in the parking lot of al-Ahli Arab Hospital in Gaza City. The Gaza Health Ministry reported 342 injured and 471 killed and blamed their deaths on an Israeli missile attack. These numbers were widely reported, sometimes indicating the information’s source (a terrorist group) and sometimes not. Over a month later, on November 26, Human Rights Watch issued a report questioning the Health Ministry’s casualty figures. The corrected numbers do not receive the same attention as the false ones. The inability to offer precise confirmed numbers allows the false certainty of the original to linger in the public imagination. When numbers are weaponized in this way, what defense do we have?

Rabbi Chaim Strauchler is an Associate Editor of TRADITION.

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