I have always found the Jewish practice of Gematria (ironically, a Greek word), simultaneously fascinating and frustrating. Gematria is the discipline of exchanging letters for numbers and vice-versa, which is made possible by the fact that in Hebrew the numerical system is the same as the alphabetic one. This means that א (Alef, the first letter) means 1, and so on. The numbering goes 1-9 (א-ט), and then by tens from 10-90 (י-צ) and then by hundreds for the remainder (ק-ת).
What this means is that every word (made of letters) is also a sum (made of numbers). Sometimes the correlations are remarkable, and sometimes a stretch. One of my favourites is the fact that if you add the word father (אב = 3) to the word mother (אם – 41), you get the word for child (ילד = 44). There are many such like this – but what occupies me at the moment, largely in jest, is what we can learn about 2021 from Gematria.
2021 as a number can be converted into many Hebrew phrases, some meaningful, some ridiculous. One which I found very amusing was בראשית שנת משיח (bereshit sh’nat mashi’ach / “the beginning of the year of the Messiah”). Let’s hope not, right? Probably my favourite equivalence to 2021 in letters is והאמת תשחרר אתכם (v’ha-emet tishcharer et’chem / “and the truth shall set you free”). This of course is the Hebrew translation of the New Testament’s John 5:30!
Aside from all the weirdly christological connections that Gematria may make for 2021, one is a quote from the Talmud, which, coincidentally also relates to this week’s parashah, VaYechi. In Jacob’s final will and testament he offers a series of blessings and curses to his children (mostly curses really), and one significant bit is in his treatment of Judah in which he says “the sceptre shall not be removed from Judah.” (Gen. 49:10) This is understood to refer to civic and civil authority and power – and of course posed a dilemma to our Rabbis.
They, in the Talmud (Sanhedrin 5a) suggest that what this verse means is broader than just the Land of Israel, and they say: לא יסור שבט מיהודה – אלו ראשי גליות שבבבל (“The sceptre shall not be removed from Judah – this refers to the Exilarchs which are in Babylon”). This justification of the verse, demonstrating how, even in the absence of sovereignty, the people were still able to claim that Judah had the sceptre of power, is an oft-quoted maxim in rabbinic texts– reminding us that Jewish community exists, even beyond disaster. Even after the destruction of the Temple, even after wars and plagues and societal collapse, the sceptre remains in Judah’s hand in one form or another. Also, this famous quote from the Talmud just happens to also equal 2021.
I don’t know what 2021 will bring. I hope it is better than 2020, just as every year should be better than the previous one. What I do know is that we can take some comfort that, even as we read the blessings of Jacob this week, spoken to his children some 3,600 years ago, we can be comforted that whatever 2021 brings, we will persist. As we have done many times we will reinterpret and re-envision what Jewish life and leadership looks like – and the sceptre shall not be removed from Judah.
Happy 2021 – whatever it brings, and whatever it may be equal to!