B’har Bechukotai: The Trouble with Counting

When we count things – we usually do so out of a fear of not having enough. Unfortunately, when you count for that reason, the result is often that you feel you do not have enough.

This is true for time, money and even people.

So why does the Torah put an emphasis on counting days and years at the same time that it tells us not to count our wealth?

The Israelites are told to carefully count the years, but then when they get to the 50th year, the Jubilee, they are supposed to let go of their concerns about wealth – both property and food.

The Sefat Emet says that time is a gift from God.

Land and food are also gifts from God, yet they do not belong to us permanently. They are more like temporary loans. The Torah says that land really belongs to God. It is not actually something we can truly possess.

Similarly our bodies, which evolved from the primordial ooze of this very earth, are not really ours forever. We have them on loan.

The gift of time is slightly different.

While we might feel we do not have enough of it, the Torah tells us that while it is something to be measured, it is not actually something of which there can be too little or too much. It just is.

In our counting of it, we can make it sacred or profane.

We cannot really make a material item sacred, although ironically we often think we can. Items are not sacred in Judaism though. Any item that we misinterpret as sacred usually becomes an idol.

The Sefat Emet says that when humans were created we became a “living soul” – which the Targum translates as a “speaking spirit.” He says that it is our mouths, our speaking abilities, which actually contain the power to awaken the “life” that is everywhere.

It is our task as human beings to find that imprint of life in the world.

We are specifically called to do that through examining nature, its cycles and rhythms and through maintaining our relationships over and above our wealth.

The “breath of life” – refers to our ability to speak the sacred – to create sacred moments through our declarations. We humans actually create sacred moments – it is in what we say to each other.

Here’s an example:
What is it about a person’s birthday that makes it special? Is it the date on the calendar? The number of years? Or the phone calls, cards and warm wishes a person receives from family and friends?

It is not the birthday that makes one happy, but the words “happy birthday” that make one happy.

Now the Jubilee – which we think of as a time of celebration – doesn’t look much like a celebration from the perspective of the year 2015, when weddings and b’nai mitzvah are dominated by large parties with abundant food.

Why then during the year of the Jubilee does the Torah de-emphasize concerns over food and wealth? During this time, the Israelites were told they could not harvest food and that property had to be returned to its original owner. While for some people this may have resulted in a return to financial stability, for others it certainly marked a decline in wealth.

The Sabbath, the Sabbatical year and the Jubilee all have this in common – a de-emphasis on material wealth in order to increase our awareness of our spiritual wealth.

Instead of giving power over to material objects, we take our power back – we recognize that it is not in what we have, but in what we declare about what we have that matters.

Our power is in our words.

The Sefat Emet says we inhabit our bodies with a “living soul” – on Shabbat we focus not on the material of our bodies, for they are just the borrowed land, so to speak. We turn instead to our thoughts, words, actions, and that spark within us that can shape the time we spend here on earth.

The Sabbath, like the Jubilee, is a time of returning to our original selves. We let go of what we have reaped or not reaped. We let go of the accomplishments we have achieved and how much money is in our bank account, and declare this time for the soul.

We also have a choice about that: we can declare it to be good, just as God did at creation, and make it a sacred occasion, or we can deprive this time of its beauty and focus on the negative.

There is a saying that a wise person does not count his or her days, but instead makes every day count.

The counting of time has its purpose – it reminds us that time is our gift from God and unlike the other gifts, such as food or land, which have inherent value, we have the power to determine time’s worth.

We have the power to make time sacred by declaring it so, by seeing the goodness in God’s creation – in nature, in others and in ourselves.

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