Judaism: 9th of Av: Numerical Significance
Rabbi Lazer GurkowRabbi Eliezer (Lazer) Gurkow, currently serving as rabbi of congregation Beth Tefilah in London, Ontario, is a well-known speaker and writer on Torah issues and current affairs.
Life isn’t a coincidence. Everything has meaning, it’s all “Bashert” [providential]. In 350 BCE and again in 69 CE, during the days leading up to the destruction of the Temple, our ancestors suffered greatly. The Babylonian forces and later the Roman Legions ransacked Jerusalem and brutalized the inhabitants. Every year, we mark these nine days as a period of mourning to commemorate the horrible suffering. That the suffering lasted for nine days, rather than ten or eight, is of significance because nine contains a message directly related to punishment and suffering.
The two attributes that govern our social relations are truth and kindness. Truth demands that you press charges and seek justice if you are hurt or injured, but kindness urges you to forgive. If your spouse asks your opinion on her appearance and you truthfully don’t like it, kindness urges you to be circumspect. That is when kindness prevails. Sometimes truth prevails. For example, if a neighbor taxes your kindness by dropping in at a late hour and doesn’t take your subtle hints, it’s time to tell the truth.
G-d’s relationship with us runs along similar lines. He is often kind to us when we transgress His laws despite what we truthfully deserve. However, in the decades leading up to the destruction of the Temple G-d sent Prophets to encourage, inspire, nudge and finally berate us into repentance, but we rebuffed them all. Our grace period expired and we received the punishment we truthfully deserved.
Nine Equals Truth
For nine full days the enemy roamed the streets of Jerusalem, pillaging, destroying and murdering at will. The marauding lasted for nine days because nine is the number of truth. Unlike any other number, nine always folds back onto itself. No matter how many times nine is multiplied the result always returns to nine. Nine plus nine is eighteen and eight plus one equals nine. Three times nine is twenty-seven and two plus seven equals nine. Nine times nine is eighty-one and eight plus one equals nine. This pattern continues without end because truth is without end.
Falsehood has a shelf life. You can tell a lie for only so long and stretch an illusion only so far. You can stretch facts away from the truth, but only so far, after a while the rope runs out and the truth comes out. Truth cannot be covered up for long, you can conceal it for a time, but in the end, it’s bound to come out.
The number nine is consonant with truth because it can never pull away from itself. Every other number can meander away from its base for a while, but nine is always anchored because the truth never sets sail. Our people were subjected to the Divine attribute of truth for nine days to remind them that this punishment was justly and truly deserved. Nine resonates with truth.
On Deeper Reflection
Our punishment was justly and truly deserved, but it wasn’t all bad. On the surface it was filled with suffering and grief, there could be no silver lining to this dark cloud, but with time a higher truth emerged. Our suffering opened the door to an exquisite depth that filled us with rich meaning.
When we suffer we focus on our own misery and bitterness. Under such conditions it’s impossible to be happy. As time passes we begin to look outward, desperate for companionship and empathy. To our surprise we discover that we are not alone. There are many out there willing to lend a hand. We reach out to be nurtured and discover something about ourselves that we never knew. As we receive nurture, we find that we can be a source of nurture for others. We extended a hand looking for comfort and ended up offering comfort.
We never knew we had it in us to reach out and find others in their dark hole. We never knew we could understand their misery and truly empathize. Before our suffering began we never looked beyond ourselves, consumed, as we were, entirely with our own enjoyment of life. Suffering forced us to look beyond ourselves and discover all kinds of people, those who offer comfort and those who require it.
Slowly we learn that we are nurtured more by offering comfort than by receiving it and thus begins our spiritual growth. Suffering opens a hole deep within us. At first this hole is filled with misery and we cannot conceive of it being good. With time and a healthy attitude we fill our hole with inner strength, exquisite beauty and the grand depth of our own soul. We look back and discover that suffering wasn’t so bad after all.
Nine – The Higher Truth
The number nine reflects this concept of higher truth perfectly. The higher truth is not immediately noticeable. One must have the courage to peer beyond the surface to glimpse this higher level of truth. Accordingly the true power of the number nine, the symbol of truth, is revealed only in the second letter of the Hebrew Aleph Bet.
The letters of the Aleph Bet have numeric value. Aleph is one, Bet is two etc. If you tally up the numbers Bet, Gimmel and Daled, two, three and four, you arrive at nine. The same is true for the next set of three. Hei, Vav and Zayin, five, six and seven equal eighteen, which again amount to nine. If you move along the Aleph bet you find that every set of three letters amounts to nine or a multiple thereof.
However, if you begin with the letter Aleph a different pattern emerges. One, two and three equal six. Four, five and six equal fifteen and of course one and five is six. If you continue through to the end of the Aleph Bet in sets of three, you will always return to six, the inverse of nine.
If you get stuck on your first impression of suffering you will have an inverted idea of its true meaning. You will perceive it only as negative and never see its beauty. If you allow first impressions to fade and give time a chance to work its wisdom you will arrive at nine, the higher level of truth. This comforting truth is reflected and implied by the number of days our ancestors suffered. It was almost like G-d was telling them without quite saying it, I know you are suffering now, but give it some time and you will see that what appears at first to be miserable contains endless meaning and exquisite beauty.
Our sages referred to this period as a time of mourning that G-d will soon transform into a time of rejoicing. Indeed, what appeared at first to be purely destructive will shortly be revealed as the first stone in the foundation of redemption. The number nine tells us that our suffering was justly deserved, but it also tells us to take heart because our redemption is at hand. Moshiach is nearly here.