Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Table Talk - Matos Masei 5767

What’s in a number? Well, if the number is one, or seven, or even ten, each number has specific significance. One=God; Seven=Days of the week, weeks in the Omer, days of Sukkot and Pesach, ten=commandments. But what if the number is something much larger…say 24,000? While it seems strange, that number appears in Judaism too often to be coincidental.
When God commands the Jewish people to attack the nation of Midyan and avenge the desecration that Midyan caused (by instructing their daughters to seduce the men and entice them into idolatry), God commands Moshe to send a specific number of troops: אֶלֶף, לַמַּטֶּה, אֶלֶף, לַמַּטֶּה--לְכֹל מַטּוֹת יִשְׂרָאֵל – “One thousand per tribe, one thousand per tribe, for all the tribes of Israel.” While some explain that Moshe only sent 12,000 men, the Midrash, noting the repetitive nature of the verse, explains that God commands Moshe to send two thousand troops from each tribe, for a total of 24,000. Intuitively, this seems to make sense, as it’s the exact same number of Jews who died in the plague that followed the sinful behavior precipitated by the Midyanite women. (see 25:9)
But if God really wants two thousand per tribe, why not just say אלפים למטה – “two thousand per tribe,” instead of saying “one thousand” twice?
Perhaps God’s command has to do with the nature of the number 1,000. The Hebrew word for 1,000 is אֶלֶף – (pronounced eleph), which we spell identically to the letter א', written in Hebrew as אָלֶף – (pronounced aleph). אָלֶף – the first letter of the alphabet, is also equivalent to the number 1, and carries mystical references to the unity of God. Perhaps then, אֶלֶף – the number 1,000, refers to the smallest unit of numbers that make up a large community, in this case a tribe.
Interestingly, this number appears in another famous example in Jewish history as well. As we know, during the Omer we mourn the deaths of Rabbi Akiva’s students who died between Pesach and Shavuos. How many died? The Gemara tells us that it wasn’t simply 24,000. Rather, in the langue of the Gemara, 12,000 pairs of students perished – or, put another way, the tribes of Israel multiplies times two.