I was born the day after the mass escape from the concentration camp of Sobibor. I didn’t know that fact as a child, but what I did know was that numbers terrified me to the extent that I flunked elementary school math. Whatever the reason the social climate of the time, seeing the arms of Holocaust survivors, or possible reincarnation memories, the fear was palpable.
The fourth book of the Torah is called Bamidbar, literally meaning in the desert. But the sages call it ‘sefer hapikudim,’ the book of Numbers, and so it is known in the world. The spatial context may be in the desert, but the opening context is all about numbers.
This year, as I watched the true to life film, “Hidden Figures,” I recalled both my early fear of numbers, and the title given to the book we are about to read. The first portion of Bamidbar is about a census of the Israelite population, and also the prelude to the revelation at Sinai. There is so much about “Hidden Figures” which is Jewish (beside the obvious pun in the title) that I would like to share a few personal associations and relevant lines.
The Go/No Go calculation point of entry was the exact mathematical number that would allow John Glenn to re-enter earth’s orbit in a way that would not throw him back into space, or burn him up by coming down too quickly. Only the amazing Kathryn Johnson was able to make that calculation. So much about Jewish practice involves precision, a precision which in other areas is taken for granted regarding the need for accuracy. In the world of computers for example, one misplaced or overlooked dot can make worlds of difference. But in Jewish life these minutia may be discounted as insignificant. Of course these details need to be engaged with heart and soul, and not just precise calculations, but without the calculations, the heart and soul cannot accomplish the transformation of the material world into a divine realm. As I began to realize later, numbers can provide solutions to earthly conundrums, as well as opening windows to a higher reality.
As Al Harrison, the head of Langley NASA commented, we need to see beyond the numbers. Traditionally, Jewish people should not be counted directly, even for mitzvah purposes such as determining a minyan, the ten necessary to recite prayers of special holiness, such as Kaddish. One reason is that living individuals are not objects, but rather subjects- in Buber’s terms, we are ‘I’s and not ‘Its.’ Interesting that in the film, the women were originally called ‘computers.’ Until that film I, like some others in the reviews I read, had heard of computers as only referring to machines. I think there is some progress in my lifetime by no longer using this term for people.
I found it fascinating that in “Hidden Figures,” which portrays the intense prejudice of those times, the only person who related to one of the African American women on an equal basis, was a Polish Jew. This survivor named Carl tells Mary who wants to be an engineer but thinks it impossible: ‘We are all living the impossible.’ Certainly that is a ‘mission statement’ of Jewish history as much as other accomplishments formally considered impossible.
Another primary theme of the film as it related to Shavuot is the unity and mutual support exemplified by these women, and eventually by the NASA crew toward them. As Kevin Costner, playing the charismatic director of Langley, Al Harrison, puts it…’we all get to the peak together, or we don’t get there at all.’ Having an over-arching purpose, can, as in the film, help us overcome divisive prejudices.
Each year, we are taught that when a particular festival arrives, we have access to the original energy that was manifest the first time. As Shavuot approaches, I try to compare the description of Revelation with the divisive state of the Jewish people today. Rashi says that when the Israelites arrived at Sinai, the Torah writes, ‘HE camped under the mountain,’ even though the entire nation was there. Rashi explains that the singular form of ‘camped’ means that the people were then ‘like one person with one heart.’ Rashi adds rather sardonically that this (unity) was not the case before or since. So how do we tap into this unity? I think ‘getting to the peak’ together is the key. We all have our individual and irreplaceable parts to play, but we must play as part of a team.
When I reflect on my youthful antipathy toward numbers, I realize part of it may have been feeling like an ‘it’ in what I felt was a cold, dangerous world. Learning and teaching Torah changed much of that feeling. Indeed, mystical perspectives see even the non-human world as pulsating with divine energy. As the sages teach, when the Revelation at Sinai occurred, the entire universe ‘stood still’ and absorbed the message behind the words, ‘I am the Lord YOUR G-d.’ This phrase too is in the singular, for G-d speaks to each of us in a way that we most need to hear. All we have to do is to listen and to see more deeply. In “Hidden Figures,” as Kathryn did when trying to decode the ‘classified protocol,’ we need to hold the words of Torah up to the light and ‘see beyond the numbers.’ May this coming Shavuot help us connect with the original revelation at Sinai, each in our own way and together with all, for a higher ‘uncommon’ good!