We marked the beginning of this Shabbat on Friday the 13th which is generally considered an unlucky date. But in Israel, it’s considered a lucky day. Why is this?
First of all, Friday is always a good day regardless of the number on the calendar, because Shabbat begins Friday evening, and the Torah tells us that at the end of the day on the first Friday, God saw all that God had created was “very good,” and God blessed the seventh day and sanctified it.
There are many examples of the number 13 in Judaism:
• 13 is the age of Bar Mitzvah.
• 13 months in the lunar calendar.
• 13 Attributes of God (Ex. 34:6-7).
• The 13 attributes are repeated 13 times throughout Yom Kippur services.
• 613 Commandments.
• Maimonides’ 13 principles of Judaism.
• In 1948, the first provisional government of Israel was called the Minhelet Ha’Am and it had 13 members (for good luck).
• The word brit, covenant, is repeated 13 times when God commands Abraham to circumcise himself and his children (Genesis 17:1-21).
• Therefore, it is thought that Abraham entered into 13 covenants with God through the commandment of brit milah.
• The Talmud (Shekalim 6:1) teaches that in the Holy Temple in Jerusalem there were:
o thirteen shofrot [shofar-shaped charity collection chests];
o thirteen tables used for the various offerings;
o and thirteen prostrations as part of the Temple service.
• In gematria, Hebrew numerology, both the words ahavah (love) and echad (one) equal 13.
•The Tetragrammaton (YHVH) is equal to 26 in gematria, giving us a wonderful math sentence: ahavah (love) + echad (oneness) = God.
But after all of this, I have to ask myself: So what? It’s just a number. Numbers are no more than tools to bookmark quantities, keep calendars, figure out how much to pay for groceries and how much to keep back for other bills. They’re just a tool, nothing more, nothing less.
And yet we imbue numbers with meaning to such a level that it affects the way we live our lives. We may think we’re above such things, but the fact is, all of us have some sort of phobia or superstition.
We humans are afraid of a lot of things, many of them imagined. We fear the unknown because we can’t control that which we do not know. We hate that. Knowledge is power, the saying goes. In other words, knowledge is safety.
But this fear of the unknown, of the uncertain, can be crippling. It can keep us from exploring, from growing, from entertaining new thoughts. It leads to close-mindedness and a certainty that is rigid and unyielding.
This is what happens to people who refuse to believe in science, who would much rather believe that God wrote the bible and people created science. They “reason” that since God is perfect and humans aren’t, science is therefore imperfect. It’s a ridiculous logical loop.
It happens to whole communities, which is why societal change can be so slow. It took 49 years for Florida to ratify the 19th amendment, giving women the right to vote. We were the last state to bend to the new reality.
The Torah gives us a perfect example of this in Pharaoh, who when faced with challenges to his world-view hardened his heart again and again, until it could not bend, could not be softened. And because of this, he lost everything.
The character in the bible who best exemplifies the ability to change? God. We saw it when God changed the laws to allow the daughters of Zelophehad to inherit property. And in this week’s reading when God again modified the laws of inheritance, to ensure that Zelophehad’s property would stay within his tribe.
We saw it when God commanded that there be a second Passover, in case a person was unable to participate in the first. We saw it when God and Abraham discussed the presence of good people in the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, and we saw it when God gave us the rainbow after the flood, and promised to never do such a thing again.
In our spiritual lives, uncertainty can be a constant companion. Not for everyone – some people are convinced that they have the answer.
But for many of us, uncertainty reigns. The spiritual journey that we travel is a rocky road, full of twists and turns. Sometimes, the light of clarity shines brightly, and sometimes it is as if we are in a dark tunnel and cannot find the way out.
Amulets and good luck symbols don’t do much in these circumstances, and you can list as many great things about the number 13 as you’d like, and it wouldn’t help. But there are other tools in our arsenal, powerful tools that we can wield at any time. Prayer. Meditation. Song. Walking on the beach. Smiling at someone we love; smiling at someone we don’t love.
By opening our hearts to uncertainty, to mystery, we allow ourselves to experience the unexpected. To see and feel things that a closed mind cannot accept. To know that we cannot understand God – God is too big for us to wrap our brains around – but we can experience God, if we allow ourselves.
This is an edited version of the sermon I gave this past Shabbat at Congregation Kol HaNeshama