Counting as a Sign of Love: Emor, Behar & the 39 melcahot

Counting is an act of love. Initially this statement might not sound so good. It stands in contradiction with what we have been taught and therefore think of love: Love should be free, flowing, feely, not measured… Brrr… I think the Torah gets the heebie-jeebies when hearing this… After all, while we might be vague with some things, (“there were lots of people”, “some change in my purse”, “tons of trees in the forest”), we usually don’t say, we have “lots of parents”, “some spouses”, “few children”, “countless best friend”, an unknown about of “millions in the bank”… We also might tell a friend, “that movie is a couple of hours long”, but to our spouse we say, “you said 9:00pm and now it’s 9:07”!!! We don’t count things that don’t matter to us, but we are very precise with those that do.

The Torah speaks of counting several times and those shed a light on the topic. Rashi on the opening verse in the Book of Numbers says:

וידבר. במדבר סיני באחד לחדש וגו‘. מִתּוֹךְ חִבָּתָן לְפָנָיו מוֹנֶה אוֹתָם כָּל שָׁעָה — כְּשֶׁיָּצְאוּ מִמִּצְרַיִם מְנָאָן, וּכְשֶׁנָּפְלוּ בָּעֵגֶל מְנָאָן לֵידַע מִנְיַן הַנּוֹתָרִים, כְּשֶׁבָּא לְהַשְׁרוֹת שְׁכִינָתוֹ עֲלֵיהֶם מְנָאָם, בְּאֶחָד בְּנִיסָן הוּקַם הַמִּשְׁכָּן וּבְאֶחָד בְּאִיָּר מְנָאָם

… G-d counted them because he loved them. When they left Egypt, he counted them and after the Golden Calf to know who’s left, and at the completion of the Tabernacle…

Rabbi Hirsch of the 19th century, teaches that S.P.R. or S.F.R., the Hebrew root for counting, is about “combining separate items, tally sums”. Thus, sofer is someone who counts, but also a scribe and author (someone who “recounts”-). Sefer is a book, sapir, sapphire is a precious stone composed of many crystals and mispar is a number.

Between these Torah portions, and during this season, we are busy counting. Sefirat Ha’Omer is about counting each day of 7 weeks (i.e. 7 times 7) between Passover and Shavu’ot. We also have to count 6 years to the 7th, the shmita, sabbatical, and 7 Sabbatical years till one Jubilee year, which depends on everybody being in the Land. Elsewhere, we’re told to count 7 “clean” days after various bodily discharges. All the counts count towards an end that is dependent on that count, like Shavuot which is the only holiday in the Torah that has no date because it will arrive the day after we’re done counting.

A count focuses all our attention on the immediate; on the individual. By counting we say, this one, this day, it matters most in the world! And yet, the count also connects the one and makes it part of a bigger picture, for without the others there is no reason to count. For example, each day of the Omer has its unique meaning and energy, and still, they are like beads on a necklace; they need each other and – the whole. Counting is about living in the moment, and at the very same time, being on a journey that has direction and takes us from point A to B. It allows us a way to be very much present, focused here and now, while remembering the journey, and our need to pay careful attention to the scenery along the way, all images of love.

And the Talmud in its daf yomi (daily page of learning) of this upcoming week, will count the melachot of Shabbat, 39 categories of creative doings that we should refrain from on Shabbat. The sages will wonder: is each one of these, an act unto itself? If a person transgresses one, does it mean the others no longer matter? Is there a way by which they can be combined? And what about that strange number, 39… nothing obvious to do with 7… but something else, perhaps coincidental: 39 is 3 times the numerical value of… love (אהבה = 13); 3 forefathers; 3 prayers a day; 3 foundations on which the world stands. 39 = לט is also טל, literally – dew, which is what we pray for at this summertime, every day, three times a day. Maybe giving us dew and rain in their precise times, is also a sign of love.

Shabbat Shalom.

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