What’s in a number? This week: 20
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What’s in a number? This week: 20

Rabbi Garry Wayland looks into the significance of a number within Jewish texts

Twenty-twenty vision: the gift of perfect clarity, seeing details in the distance ahead. One suspects that this phrase will be the bane of many an optician over the coming year, and a tired cliché for the rest of us.

The Hebrew letter that represents 20, kaf, serves grammatically to indicate a comparison. In his final words to Pharaoh, Moses declares: “At around midnight [k’chatzot] Hashem will go forth in the midst of Egypt and every firstborn will die.”

Pharaoh was notorious for finding technicalities in order to renege on any commitments to let the Jews go to freedom. Therefore Moses did not want to give too much precision. Perhaps the smiting of the firstborn may be, at least according to Pharaoh’s timekeeping, not at exactly midnight and so any promises to release the Jews would become null and void.

The new decade marks the conclusion of one in which remarkable scientific progress has been made. We see the world in more detail, greater resolution, with the gaps in our view of the universe getting ever and ever smaller.

Yet with all the promise of what
a new decade may bring, there is a sense
of individual, communal and societal disenfranchisement.

Judaism has had to live in a dark world for many years: of physical and spiritual exile, of being the other, of being excluded.

We give thanks to God that, by and large, many of the worst aspects of exile have been mitigated, but the existential exile still looms.

Yet we have coped – and, in many cases, survived and thrived – by acknowledging that ‘Your Faithfulness is in the nights’ (Psalms 92).

Perhaps the world in 2020 needs some of the kaf, the Jewish 20 – the imprecision and fuzziness that arises from having a sense of faith in God who guides history, a confidence that we don’t need all the answers, and a belief that we are intrinsically important, regardless of the external quantifications of retweets and likes.

  •   Rabbi Garry Wayland is a teacher and educator for US Living and Learning

 

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