PARSHAT YITRO- IN HONOR OF RABBI MARC’S FIFTIETH BIRTHDAY: By Yehudis Fishman
Fifty is a number deeply connected to the Revelation at Sinai. We count 49 days (it’s coming very soon) between Pesach and Shavuot. So the question jumps out at us, ‘Why stop at 49 and not say an extra special blessing for Shavuot, the fiftieth day? To understand both the question and the answer, we need some background information. In many other rabbinic contexts, the numbers 49 and 50 are significant. Here are just a few: For seven times seven years, we count the Shmittah year. In fact this happens to be one of them. But the year after the 49th year, is called ‘Yovel,’ meaning the Jubilee year, which is like an extra Shmittah year with benefits. All land in Israel is returned to its original owners, and all slaves are set free- hence the quote on the Liberty Bell- ‘And you shall declare freedom to all the land and the inhabitants thereof.’
Actually the rabbis also point out that the Exodus itself is mentioned 50 times in the Torah, as are the stopping places in the desert, the 50th being the crossing of the Jordan River. In fact, in Hebrew the word Yarden meaning Jordan comprises the words ‘Yared Nun,’ meaning going into fifty. Also there ‘happens’ to be 49 letters in the first two verses of Shema, and 49 letters in the names of all the twelve tribes. This dance between 49 and 50 can parallel another Talmudic passage: If someone says to you, ‘I have striven but not found, don’t believe.’ If someone says, ‘I have not striven but found, don’t believe.’ Only if someone says, I have striven and found, -believe.’ Finding implies something unexpected. Yet to find without having tried at all cannot really happen. So what is the correct dynamic? To strive, in other words to put in maximum effort, but to know there is a gap between 49 which is connected with maximum striving, and 50 which is associated with transcendent and therefore ‘impossible’ finding.
Another link with 49 and 50 is that there are 50 gates of understanding, 49 of which are related to aspects of duality, or contrasts. For example, the Talmud says that there were some periods in Jewish history where young children were so smart that they could prove 49 ways whether or not a creature was pure or impure. But the 50th level was a higher place of non-duality. Therefore, the mystics say that Teshuva, Return, stems from the 50th gate of understanding. Another connection with Sinai is a reference to the Yovel, which besides meaning Jubilee, also is a term for the Shofar. Thus the sounding of the shofar itself is a call to Teshuva which stems from the 50th gate, to the basic foundations of life before choices have made certain consequences inevitable. To me it is so interesting that just recently the use of skin stem cells for organ healing and regeneration is being explored. The most current method involves returning the skin cell to a kind of ‘tabula rasa’ condition from which a broad potential for direction can be used.
This brings us back to the significance of 50, which seems to be a point beyond and transcending the dichotomies associate with the number 49. Thus, according to the Sefat Emet, the 50th level, or day from Egypt, is not countable because we have reached the omega point where G-d does the counting which is beyond our individual capacities. As the prophet records G-d as saying, ‘You return to me and I will return to you.’ This is G-d’s own Teshuva, so to speak, for creating concealment in the first place. Perhaps even the crack in the Liberty-Yovel bell is also a way in from the tyranny of transgression to the freedom of forgiveness! Along this line, too, the number 50 relates to the sefirah, the divine attribute, of Binah, which the sages call the ‘mother principle,’ the archetype which is the source of forgiveness. Forgiveness can incorporate and transmute even serious deviations from the correct path, and so also is beyond absolute differences between right and wrong. Thus we find later in the Torah, with specific reference to the five daughters of Tzelafchad, a large size letter ‘Nun’ equaling 50 and also being a feminine suffix. In a similar manner, Haman constructs a 50 foot gallows to hang Mordechai, but instead- as one of the many examples of reversals in the Megillah-was himself hung by Mordechai. Back to 50 and the revelation at Sinai. Even the Torah’s reference to the date is connected more with the number 50 than, unlike other holidays, a specific calendar date. ‘You shall count fifty days, till the day after the seventh Sabbath..’ Yet, strangely, the rabbis debate about whether the Revelation occurred on the 50th or the 51st day after Passover. However, they all agree that the occurrence was on the Sabbath! To me this suggests that there is something in the nature of the Sabbath that captures the essence of the Revelation- the principle that as much as we do our work and preparation, there comes a point where G-d ‘takes over’ because we have reached the apex of human capacity. In fact, in some sense, G-d was carrying us all along, but as Jacob exclaims when he awakes from his ladder dream,
‘Really G-d is in this place, but I did not know it.’ This is my deeper understanding of the idea of ‘AWE.’ The mystics teach that the entire Torah is contained in the Ten Commandments, the Ten Commandments are all contained in the first one, the first commandment in the first word, ‘Anochi,’ and the word Anochi in the first letter ALEPH with the vowel kamatz under it, pronounced in Ashkenazic circles as ‘AWE’! So how can we not be ‘in awe’ when we hear the voice of G-d calling to us from a place of infinite power, potential, and possibility. The Midrash relates that before Sinai, there was an impassable gap between heaven and earth, and between spirit and matter. But when the Torah says, ‘And G-d ‘descended’ upon Mount Sinai,’ that barrier was overcome. Where does the capability come from to transcend such opposites? Only from a place that is beyond and undefined by any differences in creation- only from the Creator who is so infinite that in that higher place, everything is embraced- a place of all- KOL in Hebrew, Kof Lamed, whose letters ‘happen’ to add up to 50!
I am sure you all join me in wishing Rabbi Marc, a year, and a life, of KOL TUV- all good, in all matters both material and spiritual, in a way that allows the transcendent 50 to saturate and illuminate all the 49 levels of time, space, and person, and that he continue to inspire himself and all of us to become the best people that we can be.