Rabbi Esther Hugenholtz
There’s Power in Numbers
Rabbi Esther Hugenholtz
There’s Power in Numbers
There’s power in numbers. Numbers determine our lot. They shape our perception of the world. They guide our thinking about important issues. Numbers range from the abstractions of philosophy to the gritty reality of lives lived in their myriad ways.
There’s magic in numbers. Numbers are wrapped in symbol and metaphor, point to archetype and myth. Sometimes they occupy a space between the literal and figurative, between the creative and exact. Numbers cement our rationality or whip up our superstition. Numbers are the bearers of values and the makers of meaning. We Jews know that all too well.
The first prime number is also our most cardinal one: One. One for the One God our religious civilization bequeathed to humanity. One for the fundamental moral recognition that, as in the words of the prophet Malachi , ‘halo Av echad lechulanu, halo El echad baranu’ - ‘Have we not one Father? Has not one God created us?’ Six digits on, the number seven features broadly in our tradition. The seventh day of rest sets us all free and allows us to honour Creation and ourselves . Seven are the branches of the Menorah, the golden candelabra of the ancient Temple, bearer of Divine light . Multiples of seven are the warp and the weft of social law woven through the Torah’s narrative: where the land is allowed to rest and where through the Jubilee, the shackles of bondage are broken, debts annulled and the free rejoice .
And then ten multiples onwards, we find seventy. ‘Shivim’ in Hebrew. Resonating across the pages of the Bible and rabbinic literature. Seventy, in the imaginings of the Jewish tradition, is a number that, paraphrasing Walt Whitman, ‘contains multitudes’ . From the sweeping narrative of Torah to the embroidered detail of our lives - seventy are the years that this community – Sinai Synagogue – has existed.
In 1944, almost seventy years ago, six founding men and women of this community – of whom some are still with us today, such as our Life President Ruth Sterne – attended the first service and built this place. Not only in a brick-and-mortar sense but also through the best Reform values that Sinai Synagogue has chosen to embrace. Through ‘tefilah’, being a community of prayer where we strive to draw closer to God and our own authentic selves. Through ‘limmud’, being a community of learners, always willing to engage and struggle with the texts of our tradition and of our life’s experience. Through ‘keruv’, reaching out to the wider world in to engage our fellow Jews and non-Jews alike and finally, through ‘tikkun olam’, an effort to repair our world, through the small but important contributions that we can make.
A seventy year milestone calls for celebration and commemoration. Let us look at the many ways ‘seventy’ echoes meaningfully across our Jewish tradition. Seventy were the individuals of Jacob’s family who settled from Canaan in Egypt, a tribe on the cusp of nationhood . Seventy were the wise men who offered Moses guidance so that he needed not bear the burden of leadership alone, a type of proto-democracy that would inspire the world in the ages to come . Like a man of seventy years was the youthful Talmudic sage Elazar ben Azariah whose learning was beyond his years . Seventy are the years that Tehillim, Psalms , deem to be the fullness of life. Seventy years did Honi the Circle Drawer of Talmudic lore, wait for the carob tree to sprout, expressing an investment in the world and its future . Seventy are the nations of the world for which the Torah was translated at the borders of the Promised Land . And most importantly, shivim panim la’Torah – seventy are the ‘faces’ – the multiple interpretations of our Torah . An ancient rabbinic call to the tolerance and pluralism we practice in our community today.
Seventy is a very powerful number as it embraces apparent contradictions. On the one hand, it is small enough for us to grasp, to count without losing track of the train of our thoughts. On the other hand, it is a generously large number, accommodating statistics and size. It is a number that is significant yet still accessible. It is the number of transitions. It is a Janus head, looking both to the past and future. Seventy holds vision without losing its sense of history.
And vision is exactly what we see at Sinai Synagogue today. These are exciting times for our community, our place in the wider Jewish community and our place in the city itself. Sinai Synagogue has anchored her presence in Leeds as a vibrant and open Reform community, living her core values of prayer, learning, inclusivity and social justice. To provide a Judaism that is contemporary and relevant, that calls upon the heart without disengaging the mind. That drinks from the fount of tradition while whetting an appetite for innovation. That is unafraid to pursue justice, as the Torah exhorts us, in the ways that we can: whether it is raising funds for mental health, gathering goods for asylum seekers or encouraging meaningful and challenging discussions at our Israel Cafe.
And of course, this community knows warmth and connection that binds families and friends, of a good time had by all, whether it’s a bake-off or tea party, Israeli dance, a book club, cooking up a storm for our popular Chavurah suppers or cuddling with our youngest members at Shabbatots. I am proud and honoured to have joined not only the rabbinic team at this synagogue but also to have joined the Sinai Family, together with my husband and infant son, where we can partake and help shape the future of our community. We were made welcome from my time as a rabbinic intern and beyond – from my first visit in 2011 to celebrating the circumcision of our baby Jonathan until the moment we moved into our new apartment. A testimony to the generosity and solidarity of this community were the plethora of gifts, cards and offers of help settling in. My husband and I even found a bag of fresh bagels hanging on our door! (We know who you are, mystery bagel-hanger!)
For all these – and many more – reasons, I believe in a beautiful future of our community because I know there’s power in numbers. Numbers represent individuals, numbers reflect community. There is power in numbers not only because of symbolism or myth but because behind each number is a human story and a human being. The Jewish tradition frowns upon ‘counting’ individuals because none of us can be reduced to a number. At the same time, each of us is a number in the best of ways. Not in a reductive, limiting way but in an expansive way, brimming with potential. Living in community, where no man is an island, allows us to reach that potential. Through family, wisdom, vision, maturity, justice, patience, kindness – the values our tradition associated with the number seventy.
Ultimately, there is power in numbers because there is power in us. We have the power to shape our community and lift it up and carry it into the next seventy years. I can’t wait to see how the story unfolds. Let’s all write it together, in primary and cardinal ways.
Each and every one of us.