Friday, October 12, 2007

Question & Answer With Rabbi Micha Golshevsky - Gematria

A Simple Jew asks:

On Erev Rosh Hashana, my wife had to take our minivan into the dealership to be serviced. The dealership called an hour after dropping it off and informed my wife that all four brake pads were almost completely worn down and needed immediate replacement. The total bill would amount to $557.

Since I considered the ability to stop the car to be a life safety issue, I authorized the dealership to go ahead and replace the brake pads and told them I would be by later that afternoon to pick up the minivan.

Given the fact that it was Erev Rosh Hashana, I could not but help think that there had to be some message in all of this. The immediate thought that came to my mind was that I needed to have given another $557 in tzedakah over the course of the past year. And, perhaps it was now being deducted from my annual parnossa allotment in the form of an expense for which I would rather not be responsible in order to teach me this lesson. As Rabbi Nachman of Tulchin taught, "If he is worthy, then a person "loses" his money by giving it to tzedakah."

$557 - what was significant about the number 557? 557 is the Gematria of the word "first" (ראשון), however, this was the last day of the year. Any attempt to draw a connection between this event and the word first seemed forced in my mind. The thought crossed my mind that perhaps there was no connection, and that I was pounding a square peg into a round hole with my attempt to apply this Gematria.

Is application of Gematria something that is solely in the realm tzaddikim or can the common man attempt to use it to draw connections as well?

Rabbi Micha Golshevsky answers:

First of all, gematrios are very tricky. I remember when the Challenger tragically exploded in mid-air, I was told that there was a certain person who came up with the most amazing gematrios about this in that week's parsha. All the names of the astronauts who died appeared, as did the name of the shuttle itself and certain detailed descriptions. Since there wasn't much time to work these out between the tragedy and Shabbos, someone asked the "wise man" how he had worked out such amazing gematrios in such a short time?

"I had it all worked out ahead," was the astonishing reply.

"But how did you know ahead of time what would happen?"

"I didn't. I did an alternate set that showed how everything worked out perfectly also!"

I don't know if the above is a true story (I certainly hope not!) but it definitely illustrates a true point. You can find a gematria for anything and everything. Sometimes a high number is made up of many smaller numbers instead of the exact value of a different word.

On the other hand, we see in countless sources that when true Tzaddikim reveal genuine gematrios, they are uncovering the essence of the subject through the gematria. This is why, for example, the Piasetzner Rebbe HY"D writes that the difference between a Mekubal who is a Chossid and one who is not is that the latter only knows that "lechem" has the numerical value of 78, the same value as 3 sheimos Havaya (3 x 26 = 78). The Mekubal/Chossid, on the other hand, *sees and experiences* that the essence of bread is three sheimos Havaya! For the Mekubal, it can sometimes be a mental exercise. For the Chossid, it's real!

True gematrios are not the result of mental gymnastics. Genuine gematrios get to the conceptual root of the subject. (Not like our apocryphal Challenger gematrios.)

Now while it may be arguable that any two objects with the same gematria are spiritual cognates no matter who discovers the connection, (and here I especially mean in a situation like yours where there was a sum involved), perhaps the "true" gematria really would indicate several things tied together, and not only that which you pinpointed?

What you discovered was a remez that resonated with you; that's why you found it.

Rebbe Nachman teaches that we should take hints to come closer to Hashem from every experience, word, and thought that we meet in life. Reb Nosson adds that even if you don't see the remez, you should believe that everything is a remez from Hashem.

We can certainly find the remez from Hashem through the medium of gematria.

However, there is a fundamental difference between Tzaddikim and simple people. The true Tzaddikim know with certainty about the root of the problem; we are only making an attempt based on our limited understanding as a kind of hishtadlus and as a way of being mefashfeish b'maaseinu. As Reb Nosson writes, everything we go through is solely to get us to turn to Hashem. Does that mean that I am correct if I have a feeling that the lesson to learn is from the gematria and not another aspect of the experience? Only if I have the humility to realize that very likely I am not correct but I should use whatever comes to mind since that seems compelling to me. It is likely that if it appeals to me, something in that area truly needs fixing even if I haven't reached the depths of truth.

Maybe another person going through your experience would have learned that he needs to hit the brakes on certain behaviors, and that the money spent was a kind of kaparah for whatever the behavior might be. A third person undergoing the experience might have come up with another gematria (or several). Since you came up with Rishon, though, I"ll write you a few possibilities about the word. You can choose any and all and interpret them as you choose!

1) Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai says that Hashem is called Rishon (in Zohar Chadash, sisrey torah), and as you e-mailed me that you saw today in the davening the words אתה הוא ראשון in Ezras Avoseinu. It could be seen as an indication that you should strengthen your Shivisi Hashem linegdi samid.

2) Eisav is called Rishon ("vayatsa harishon" Pesachim 5a). It could be seen as a call to overcome any of the bad middos associated with Eisav.

3) The Beis Hamikdash is called Rishon in a posuk in Yirmiyahu (see Pesachim 5a again). It could be a hint to work on mourning the Beis Hamikdash (the destruction of which is a direct result of Adam & Chava's eating from the Eitz Hadaas on Erev Rosh Hashana--the source for this is Arizal and Mekor Chaim). Or perhaps to work on building your internal Beis HaMidkash, which means gaining kedushas hamachshava, etc.


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