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Seven Is the Magic Number: A Rosh Hashanah Teaching for 5777

As a lover of numbers, I am greatly intrigued by this new Jewish year, 5777. We’ll see it only once a millennium, and I think it is worthy of our attention and reflection. For the number seven is the central theme of Judaism, and the organizing principle of our spiritual system. Seven is the number of wholeness, fulfillment, and completeness. On Rosh Hashanah, the birthday of the world, we especially note that the Torah begins with the story of creation, a story of six days of creating that can only be made complete by a seventh day on which all of that creating pauses, and instead the Creator reflects upon and blesses this magnificent creation.

Seven is the “magic number” of Judaism. It is, in fact, a number that crops up everywhere in human cultures, and in patterns of nature. I can summon no definitive explanation for this phenomenon. Light refracts into the seven-colored spectrum. Spiritual systems identify the seven chakras, or energy centers, in the body. The Western musical scale has seven notes in its octave (completed, of course, by the repetition of “do”.) We traditionally counted seven seas, seven heavens, seven continents, and seven planets. Whether the origin inheres in nature, or the human mind (or both), seven represents wholeness, the “All” of life.

But patterns of seven pervade Judaism in particular, not as some curiosity but as the anchor of how we mark time and remember the unity of Creation. Seven has much to teach us. So, let’s take the cue in a year of 777, and dive in.

There are seven days in a week. Around the globe, we mark this seven-day cycle as though it was as inevitable as the sun’s daily journey across the sky, and the moon’s wax and wane. And yet, there is nothing inevitable about a seven-day week. We don’t observe it in nature, not like the 29 ½ day lunar cycle, or the 365 ¼ day solar year. In the times of Ancient Israel, the idea of a seven-day cycle that culminated in a day of rest did not exist in the empires of Egypt or Babylonia, or anywhere else that historians can identify. As unlikely as this may sound, the seven-day week is an invention of Judaism. It is one of our tradition’s gifts to the world.

In addition to the ubiquitous seven day week, cycles of seven appear everywhere in Judaism. Our festivals last seven days; we sit shiva, which simply means “seven”, to honor our dead and mark our grief; we count seven weeks, seven sevens, between Passover and Shavuot, journeying from slavery to our covenant as free people with the Creator, and seven weeks again from Tisha B’av to today, Rosh Hashanah, a journey of teshuvah, an annual return from exile and despair to renewal and reconnection.

And not just days and weeks, but years are also counted. The seventh year is the sabbatical year, a year in ancient Israel when debts were forgiven, when our ancestors let their cultivated fields lie fallow, and even removed the yoke from their oxen: A year of rest for the earth, and all it contains. After seven sabbatical years arrived the Jubilee year, a time when wealth was redistributed, servants were freed, and all were reminded that although we enjoy its fruits, we do not own the earth. God declares, “the earth is mine – you are but leaseholders and temporary residents upon it.”

Months are counted, too. We are just entering the month of Tishri, a month that contains Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, Shmini Atzeret, and Simchat Torah. It is a month of holy days. If we follow the more ancient Jewish understanding that the year begins in springtime, with the month of Nissan, the month of Passover, then count off – Nissan, Iyar, Sivan, Tammuz Av, Elul – and we have just entered the seventh month of the year, the sabbatical month, as it were, when we take a pause from our year, awaken to the Shofar, fast and reclaim at-one-ment with life on Yom Kippur, rejoice in life’s goodness and bounty on Sukkot, and then dance joyously on Simchat Torah. Our wise tradition gives us a full month every year to exit our rat race and remember that there is more to life than scurrying and hoarding.

The ancient menorah with its seven branches, perpetually aflame, stood in our ancient Temple to remind us of the sacred meaning of seven.

Here, then, is its message: the Torah understands and accepts that it is our nature as human beings to domesticate the world, to manipulate and cultivate our environment for our own purposes. We are a remarkable species, endowed with the ability to take the raw materials around us, analyze and dissect them into their smallest parts and transform them in countless ways. The Torah affirms our gift as a unique and exalted attribute: “And God created the human being in God’s image – male and female God created them. God blessed them and said, ‘be fertile and increase, fill the earth and master it’…And God saw everything that God had made, and found it very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day.” (Gen 1: 27-28, 31)

But the Torah also understands and accepts the inherent danger of a species with this much power: our will to domesticate easily becomes a will to dominate; our capacity to have power over our world persuades us that we are no longer beholden to that world; our ability to be creators makes us forget that we are also creatures. We become deluded by our own gifts.

Hence the seventh day, the seventh month, the seventh year, which regularize and ritualize time, mandating that we pause from our doing and manipulating. On the seventh we broaden our awareness, and contemplate the whole. In asserting that we are created in the divine image, the Torah does not limit that assertion to our ability to create and destroy. We know we are more than that. Thus the Torah also describes as Godly our ability to be self-aware, to consider the consequences of actions and the interdependence of all, to be reverent and reflective. One might say that after the six days of Creation, the world is not complete and whole until God steps back and reflects on God’s masterwork. So it is with us: we are not fully human if we do not regularly reflect on the big picture and the big questions of life. Six days we are “human doings”, but seven makes us “human beings.”

It is interesting to note that the number 7 in Hebrew, sheva, pronounced differently becomes “sova”, which means fullness and satisfaction. If we do not take the time to notice that we are satiated with life, we will never stop consuming. Seven reminds us to notice that we are already satiated with life’s blessings. We are already blessed beyond measure.

I wonder if the rainbow inspired our ancestors to consecrate seven in this way. (And if not them, then me, as I will explain!) Undifferentiated light illuminates our world, but that light by itself cannot be seen. Yet when refracted just so through drops of water, we see the magnificent spectrum of the rainbow, seven colors (with infinite shadings in between), a sight that simultaneously amazes and inspires and reassures. Judaism understands our universe, too, as a physical manifestation of an unseen Power, infinite, glorious diversity manifesting from a Unity that we call by countless names. The fleeting appearance of the seven-hued rainbow could be interpreted as a shimmering glimpse of God’s glory, an unbidden and graceful reminder of the one light that wondrously manifests as our physical universe.

In the story of Noah, the rainbow makes its first appearance in the Torah. After the floodwaters have subsided, after the earth has been cleansed of human depredation and violence, and humanity is ready for a fresh start, God chooses the rainbow as the sign of the new covenant, the promise that God will never again flood the earth: “Here is the sign I am giving you of the covenant between Me and you and every living thing on earth, now and forever: I have placed my rainbow in the cloud – it is a sign of the covenant between me and the earth.” (Gen. 9:12-13)

The Rainbow covenant predates and encompasses the covenant that God will later make at Mount Sinai with the Jewish People. The Rainbow Covenant is made with every living thing on earth. It makes good sense to me that today the rainbow is a symbol of humanity’s glorious diversity: one human family, every identity, color, shape and size as equal and worthy as any other, all emerging from and refracting out of the infinite light.

As the One becomes the many, Seven reminds us that the many are in fact all manifestations of the One. This is the supreme goal of the spiritual path: to live and act with the humble and glorious awareness that we are connected to everything, and that all is One.

I was thinking that the United States of America was founded on this exalted spiritual goal: E Pluribus Unum – out of many, one. We humans are expert at dividing and conquering. The Torah and all human history will attest to our capacity for domination and subjugation. It is part of our nature – in Hebrew, our yetzer hara. Yet the better part of our nature – our yetzer hatov – aspires to connect rather than to divide. The Biblical concept that all humans are created in the Divine image, and the American declaration that all men – and we now say all humankind – are created equal are deeply related. The possibility of knitting a sense of common destiny and mutual concern out of all of God’s children is both the American Dream and the Jewish vision of a perfected world. In the words of the prophets, the day will arrive when “My house shall be a house of prayer for all peoples” (Isaiah 56:7), and “Everyone ‘neath their vine and fig tree shall live in peace and unafraid.” (Micah 4:4)

To manifest this vision of possibility means, in Jewish terms, that we must take the meaning of Seven to heart, and imbue all of our actions with the expanded awareness, with the largest truth, with what we might call “Shabbat consciousness”, so that rather than picking the world apart for our own gain, we are instead doing what we can to put the world back together for the sake of the greatest good.

As Reb Nachman of Bratslav of blessed memory expressed 200 years ago in a prayer we read last night,

“Let all residents of earth recognize and know the innermost truth: that we are not come into this world for quarrel and division, nor for hate and jealousy, contrariness and bloodshed; we are come into this world You to recognize and know, who is blessed forever.”

Or as Pete Seeger of blessed memory, invoking the rainbow, wrote:

One blue sky above us,

One ocean lapping all our shores,

One earth so green and round,

Who could ask for more.

And because I love you

I’ll give it one more try

To show my Rainbow Race

It’s too soon to die.

We live in challenging times. And then again, have there been times that were somehow not challenging? That seems to be the nature of our earthly reality. Therefore, as we enter this year of 5777, may we be imbued with the message of 7, with Shabbat consciousness, able to, in the words of Rabbi Rami Shapiro, “embrace the Whole, even as we wrestle with its parts.” May we find strength, sustenance and comfort in our expanded awareness. May we remind one another of the wonder of being alive. May we see within humanity and all of creation the seven-striped rainbow of spectacular, cascading diversity forever refracting from the ever-present but invisible light that embraces us all.

Shana Tova to you all.

Rabbi Jonathan Kligler

First Day of Rosh Hashanah, 5777/ October 3, 2016