Tuesday, May 31, 2016

The Big Five-Oh

We Jews love our numbers, but we're a bit so-so on Numbers.
The fourth of the Five Books of Moses, which we begin this week, is a testament to truth in advertising, as its first portion at least is full of detailed census results. Sure, those numbers are round, firm and plump, but what do they mean? Does how many thousands and how many hundreds Reuben and Judah had really resonate millennia after all those folks died?
There is one tribe which breaks the double-oh pattern, however:
Those that were numbered of them, of the tribe of Gad, were forty and five thousand six hundred and fifty.
The Gaddites have an extra fifty, which naturally means that the total of the Israelites, a number we've been hearing about since the Book of Exodus, also ends in 50. But did every other tribe randomly have perfect hundreds with zero remainders? That seems actuarially unlikely. Rabbi A.D. Goldberg, citing Imrei Noam, offers a different take:
Certainly the intent is that the Torah rounds to the nearest hundred, not the nearest ten, for if so we would still be challenged by the unreasonable proposition that no tribe other than Gad happened to have an exact multiple of ten. The reason the tribe of Gad was not rounded is that its count was exactly fifty, which cannot be rounded to the nearest hundred; for which of them would you exclude?
In other words, it's easy enough to add or subtract 49 to bring a total to the closest hundred. But if it's 50 on the nose, why is it more valid to add 50 and bring it to 45,700 then subtract 50 and bring it to 45,600? Thus, an even fifty at the end stays put, indelible.
The Gaddite census is hardly the first time we come across an ineffaceable fifty. At Sinai, Moses is advised by his father-in-law to appoint judges in an almost perfectly decimalized system: over tens, hundreds and thousands. But in between the first two are "officers over fifty." Indeed, the officer over fifty (pentecoster, to be technical) is a position of unique authority and regard during the First Commonwealth (I Samuel 8:12, II Kings 1, Isaiah 3:3). A unit of fifty people has special significance which cannot be ignored.
Nor can we overlook the monetary value of fifty. At the peak of physical ability, one's valuation is fifty shekels (Lev. 27:3), The value of land is also determined by a fifty-shekel standard (ibid. v. 16). This is even the standard bridal payment (Exod. 22:17, Deut. 22:29).
Most striking, however, is the use of fifty in units of time. After all, we are currently "counting the omer," marking the days and weeks until we arrive at the fiftieth day after Passover, commemorating the Giving of the Torah on Shavuot (AKA Pentecost--yeah, that's where it comes from). The date is immaterial; we are commanded to sanctify the fiftieth day after leaving Egypt.
Fifty weeks is the length of a standard year on the Hebrew calendar.
And fifty years? That once again brings us to the end of Leviticus (25:10-13):
Consecrate the fiftieth year and proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you; each of you is to return to your family property and to your own clan. The fiftieth year shall be a jubilee for you; do not sow and do not reap what grows of itself or harvest the untended vines. For it is a jubilee and is to be holy for you; eat only what is taken directly from the fields. In this year of jubilee, everyone is to return to their own property.
The fiftieth year is (usually) a once-in-a-lifetime event, an occasion to restore and return, of reuniting families and proclaiming liberty. It is sacred and inviolable. It is not to be ignored.
And so we enter the fiftieth year, the jubilee of united Jerusalem. Perhaps this year we will finally find the courage to answer the questions that Jerusalem demands of us, or at least to ask them. Instead of hiding behind slogans and cliches, we may finally confront the challenges of David's capital. What is our vision for Jerusalem? What does unity mean? How do we proclaim liberty not in theory, but in practice? How, ultimately, do we make the Holy City whole?