Updated: Feb 27, 2020
Shana tova and Gmar Tov.
I want to begin by talking a bit about Gematria. The word Gematria means “an alphanumeric code assigning a numerical value to a word or phrase based on its letters.” The word Gematria itself is believed to derive from the Greek word for Geometry, and the practice of Gematria is at least 2,000 years old in Judaism. You may not even realize it, but I bet almost everyone in this room uses Gematria. If you have ever written a check for $18 or $36 or any other multiple of 18 for tzedaka or maybe for a bar or bat mitzvah gift, you have used Gematria. “Chai as 18” is practically part of our DNA as Jews. We may not even realize that we are the only people who think in multiples of 18! I remember once asking a Target cashier for a gift card for $36, and she looked at me as if I was crazy. But to us, it’s a totally normal number. Chai is life is 18.
Why am I talking about Gematria today? Recently Shira Krebs pointed out to me that just like the word “Chai” has a value of 18, so also does the word “Chet”, or sin. The Hebrew letters of chet, Chet-tet-aleph equal 18, just like the letters in Chai. I was blown away by this simple but amazingly neglected piece of information! Why haven’t I ever heard that before? And what can we learn from it?
In Gematria, as in all of Rabbinic Judaism, we always try to do one of two things when discussing ideas: either we try to connect them (which today is called “intertextuality”), or we try to contrast or separate them. Contrasting things, separating them, is done all the time: we distinguish Shabbat from the weekdays in Havdallah, meat from dairy, sacred from profane, Jews from the rest of the world, kosher from not, etc. And connecting things happens all the time too: we speak about places in the torah where the same words or ideas appear, we repeat the same prayers on various chagim, we connect the exodus from Egypt and the giving of the Torah to our Shabbat meals with our kiddushes and our brachot. The same connecting efforts occur with Gematria. We try to find two ideas or words or even phrases that have the same numerical total, and then derive from that some deeper meaning or insight. The fact that these identical numbers may be a coincidence does not diminish the meaning we might derive from them.
So what can we learn today, at Neilah, about Chet and Chai each having the value of 18, a number which is so fundamental and ubiquitous in our Jewish lives? In the Talmudic tractate about Yom Kippur, the Rabbis ask the question we all might wonder today: we know that we tend to repeat our own particular sins. Whatever our personal weaknesses are, they usually won’t disappear after today, even with our most sincere efforts at teshuva. So the Rabbis ask, should we keep confessing the same things, year after year, Yom Kippur after Yom Kippur? Doesn’t that type of confession eventually become insincere and meaningless? In Yoma 86b, Rav Huna answers “yes”, we MUST keep confessing the same things: he says “once a person has committed a sin once and twice, it is (as if it is) permitted to him”. That is, it seems to him a natural part of his personality, and he or she may end up saying, “that’s just who I am”, or “that’s just what I do”. Therefore, it is necessary for each of us to continue to confess, year after year, the same sins.
We might learn from the Gematria for both Sin and Life, Chet and Chai, that perhaps sinning, and repeating the same sins year after year, IS part of life. Perhaps we can’t totally avoid that most human condition. But, we CAN try to break the cycle of doing the same harmful things, and then “permitting ourselves” those sins. We CAN assume responsibility for our sins, for our hurtful and harmful behaviors, and try to break that cycle. It seems impossible to do, to change the sins that are “our most familiar and unwelcome companions”. How do we change our nature, or at least the bad parts of it? This is what the field of psychotherapy, all the self-help books, and inspirational speakers in our popular culture today all try to help us accomplish. Clearly, it takes more than just the simple desire to change. It even takes more than our annual teshuva efforts, sincere as they might be.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks teaches that there are three barriers to growth, three things which are responsible for our continued sinning the same sins year after year: the first is self-righteousness, the belief that we did nothing wrong to begin with, that we’re pretty darn good already. If we don’t even recognize our behavior as sinful, we certainly aren’t going to try to change it. The second barrier is false humility, the belief that nothing we do can be great. If our sins are just the normal behavior of a flawed person, what is the point of working to change? And the third barrier to growth is learned helplessness, the belief that we can’t even change ourselves, so how can we possibly improve the world we live in? Rabbi Sacks says these barriers are all false: We may not yet be great, but conversely, we are certainly not inconsequential.
There is well-known story of Rabbi Bunim who carried two stones in his pocket: on one stone was written “Bishvili nivrah ha’olam, the world was created just for me”, and the other stone said “Afar v’efer anochi, I am but dust and ashes”. From this story we learn that we should become neither too impressed with ourselves, nor too negative about ourselves. Rather, we must take responsibility for our wrongs and aspire to greatness. We can aspire to holiness in our lives. We can try to separate Chet from Chai, and not take that easy way out by saying, the Chet is just part of my life, it’s OK, I shouldn’t be so hard on myself. Personal growth can be defined as the ability to actually address a particular sin, so that we don’t leave here tonight and go right back to the same bad behaviors. But growth is only attainable if we take responsibility for our actions, if we avoid the barriers of feeling too arrogant, too self-critical, or too helpless.
At the very end of Mishnah Yoma, Rabbi Akiva says that on Yom Kippur we should “Feel happy for all of Israel. Feel happy. Today cleans you”. We can try to clean the Chet from our Chai, to separate the sin from our natures and from our natural tendency to think Chet and Chai are unavoidably linked. We must, in Rabbi Sacks’ words, avoid being self-righteous, or falsely humble, or feeling helpless. Even though the Gematria of both Life and sin match, we can let Yom Kippur clean us and take personal responsibility for the sins we repeat year after year, so that hopefully, next Yom Kippur, we will not be repenting of the same things yet again.
Let me end with my own Gematria connection: The words “Yom Kippur” have a gematria value of 372, which is the same as the word “sova”, abundance, or “save’a”, which means satisfied, satiated or full, as in “v’achalta v’savata”, “you shall eat and be satisfied” from bircat haMazon. Like “Chet” and “chai”, sin and life, these two words “Yom Kippur” and “fullness” might seem to have no connection; they may even seem to be mutually exclusive. But they do have the same gematria, so there is at least a numerical connection between them. With that connection between Yom Kippur and fullness in mind, let our repentance this year be abundant and responsible, and so effective that it leaves us satisfied and feeling cleansed as the New Year begins!
Gmar Chatima Tova.