Elul & Understanding: Sponsored by the Number 67
Delivered at Shabbat Services, August 6, 2021
Remember how in a Sesamee Street, each episode is sponsored by a letter and a number?
So, tonight's sermon is sponsored by the number 67. 67 is a significant number in the Jewish tradition. It signals a meaning that I want to explore tonight.
One of the amazing things about text study is that no two people see it alike. Like understanding contemporary art, just as I may experience a painting of a waterfall as calming, thinking of the sound of the rushing water, another may see it as a painting about anxiety or fear. The waterfall is about falling off the edge coupled with the rush of not having something underneath you. So too, when we look at the Torah, multiple interpretations abound.
Some people look at the Torah and see letters. But here is where the number 67 comes in. Consider looking at the Torah as a string of numbers. How would that change the meaning of the text?
In the Jewish tradition, this sort of thinking is known as G'matria. In this way, we give each letter a numerical value. That then means words have value, too. Put things together, and new connections get made. While a lot of G'matria is cute or silly, the practice can be a sort of creative poetry out of numbers.
So, consider 67.
This weekend, we celebrate Rosh Chodesh Elul. We begin this Hebrew month that is the run-up to the High Holy Days. Elul is a time of introspection, what we call Cheshbon HaNefesh, an appraisal of the soul. In daily morning minyanim, we blow the shofar. In Sephardi circles, worshipers pray the Selichot service before sunrise, beginning to seek the repentance and forgiveness that will be in full force come Yom Kippur.
Elul, like all Hebrew words, has a numerical value, which is in this case 67.
But 67 is a meaningless number without something on the other side of the equation.
There is another word in Hebrew that also has the numerical value of 67, and that is the word binah.
And so, we can now draw an equation: Elul is equal to Binah. Binah translates to understanding. And so, as we approach this month of Elul, we may claim that our purpose is to seek understanding.
But what we are to understand is another question.
Elul is an invitation into the internal, and exploration of our personal relationship with the Eternal. We seek connection in our sacred communities in two ways. Some of us our outer seekers, we find meaning in the connection with others. All life is meeting, said Martin Buber. This is that person who comes to shul to sit next to a friend, to catch up over oneg. The other seeker is the internal seeker. This is the person who looks to find connection by looking inside themselves.
In truth, we are all a little bit of internal and external seekers. And Elul is an invitation to focus for a while on the internal spiritual quest.
When we say yes to that invitation, and travel through these days making our way to Rosh Hashanah, we--I hope--find a deeper sense of binah about who we are, in our relationships, with our community, our world, and with God.
The action one takes to gain binah is to talk, to talk with oneself, to talk with others, and to talk with God. You can do this by picking up a pen and paper, keeping an Elul journal. Perhaps you want to review the year gone by. Perhaps you can write wish lists for the year to come. In what ways did we do well? Where did we fall short? What hopes and dreams energize us as we approach 5782?
We can also talk with one another about this. In the coming month, I will be posting on Facebook questions for consideration. It will all live on Hevreh's Facebook page, so if you haven't liked that yet, let me invite you to please go online and do so. Each week, I'll be posting a video from our musical Kol Nidrei service from last year. And then, as part of that, asking questions that are sparked by those prayers we recorded. Each question is an invitation to explore where you are at with your spiritual life, in order that you might approach the next year with clarity, with binah, with understanding. Then, because these are supposed to be conversations, I hope you'll respond to the questions on Facebook, making this a communal exercise.
I'm excited to see what comes of this little Elul experiment for our digital shul.
Lately, Liz and I have been watching the TV show Ted Lasso, a comedy about an American Football coach who gets tapped to become the team manager of a British soccer team. He's a lovable, affable character, who draws you in with awe-shucks witticisms. And many underestimate Ted. In one scene, Ted delivers a monologue. He says he has spent his whole life being underestimated, that other men--specifically other boys in his class--always did not expect much of what he could achieve. Then, one day, he was driving along and saw a Walt Witman quotation stenciled on a wall. "Be curious, not judgmental," it read. At that moment, Ted understood. The other boys had judged him without ever being curious about who he really was.
"Be curious, not judgmental." This could be a great Elul slogan.
Because out of curiosity comes understanding, and from understanding comes wisdom. If we put aside our judgments of ourselves and of others, and rather get curious about what is going on for us and for those with whom we are in relationship, I wonder what would happen to our understanding of the world in which we live and how we each move through it.
This sermon has been brought to you by the number 67, in that Elul (67) is about gaining binah (67).
May we each embrace a sense of curiosity that prompts deep consideration of where we are at with ourselves, with others, and with God. And may that consideration lead to understanding. May our understanding of one another lead to a sense of worth and of blessing. In order that the coming year may be one for goodness, wellbeing, and peace.