In The Midbar (wilderness) of Gematria, I concluded that Gematria is a questionable tool of Biblical interpretation. In his “Bamidbar: The essence of the Jewish people,” Rabbi Ya’aqob Menashe says
“In Gematria the word Bamidbar has the same numerical value as Abraham, which is a total of 248. This comes to teach us that in the merit of Abraham Abinu (our father Abraham), ‘a”h, G-d gave us the Torah. In Midrash Tanhuma it says that Haqqadosh Barukh Hu (the Holy One Blessed be He) chose the Jewish people because of their quality of humility, which they merited to receive on account of Abraham Abinu, ‘a”h, who said, “I am dust and ashes. From this we see that the essence of the Jewish people, and the key to their success, are the qualities of unity and humility.”
We see that Rabbi Menashe uses Gematria, which he considers an important tool of Torah knowledge, to try and discover the “essence of the Jewish people.”
In The Midbar (wilderness) of Gematria, I examined Rabbi Menashe’s (what I considered) parlous use of Gematria. Before I examine the second part of Rabbi Menashe’s paragraph, I’d like to point out that this discussion stands by itself and so it is not necessary to have read the previous post, The Midbar (wilderness) of Gematria.
Here is the first part of Rabbi Menashe’s paragraph, which I discussed more fully in the previous post:
In Gematria the word Bamidbar has the same numerical value as Abraham, which is a total of 248. This comes to teach us that in the merit of Abraham Abinu (our father Abraham), ‘a”h, G-d gave us the Torah.
In point form:
1.Bamidbar (in the wilderness) and Abraham share the same numerical value (248).
2.This teaches that God gave the Hebrews the Torah because of Abraham’s merit.
And his second part:
In Midrash Tanhuma it says that Haqqadosh Barukh Hu (the Holy One Blessed be He) chose the Jewish people because of their quality of humility, which they merited to receive on account of Abraham Abinu, ‘a”h, who said, “I am dust and ashes. From this we see that the essence of the Jewish people, and the key to their success, are the qualities of unity and humility.”
In the above section, Rabbi Menashe explains that because of Abraham’s humility expressed in his “I am dust and ashes,” God is going to give the “Jewish people” (“Hebrews” is more apt, because the term “Jew” originates from Judah Jewdah) the gift of humility.
So, God chose the Jewish people because they were humble. How did they become humble? God made them humble – because of (that is, “in”) Abraham’s humility. Did God see any merit in the Jewish people? Rabbi Menashe says yes? It’s hard, though, to see how there can be any merit in receiving a gift, because “gift” means “free,” “unmerited,” “unearned.” In Rabbi Menashe’s description, God gives the Jewish people the gift (by definition, unmerited) of humility, and then subsequently chooses them “because of the quality of their humility.” Yet, according to Rabbi Menashe, God gave them humility (and its quality) for one reason only, namely, the humility of Abraham, which he merited, as proved by his confession “I am dust and ashes”.
Thus, there was, according to Rabbi Menashe, enough merit in Moses treasury of merit for everyone. I am reminded of the Roman Catholic Church’s “treasury of merit.” Here is one Catholic’s appraisal:
“I realized that the “merits of the saints” actually conveys a beautiful truth, albeit clumsily, First off, as the CCC [Catechism of the Catholic Church) says in 2007: “With regard to God, there is no strict right to any merit on the part of man. Between God and us there is an immeasurable inequality, for we have received everything from him, our Creator.” In other words, we can do nothing on our own. The CCC continues to say “The merit of man before God in the Christian life arises from the fact that God has freely chosen to associate man with the work of his grace (CCC 2008). In short, we can earn merit not through any goodness in our part, but because God adopted us and chose to work through us (see CCC 2009-2011).”
Why, though, call it a treasury of merit? Indeed, if “we have received everything from him” (see above), where all is gift, where all is the “work of his grace (“grace” means “free”), why is there a treasury of human merit in the first place? (Judaism – if not the written Torah – regards the definition of “grace” as a free gift as nothing more than a magical figment).
Rabbi Menashe’s presentation seems to hinge on a similar contradiction (revealed in the Catholic description above) where unmerited (undeserving) merit (where the Jewish people receive Abraham’s merit) becomes merited merit (that is, God chooses the Jewish people because they are humble). Even more troubling is that nowhere in the written Torah will you find the basis for such an analysis. Indeed, according to another Rabbi, Rabbi Shraga Simmons, “it is not so much that G-d chose the Jews; it is more accurate that the Jews (through Abraham) chose G-d.”
Whether it is God who chooses the Jews or the Jews that choose God , we’re still left – in Rabbi Menashe and the Midrash Tanhuma – with merit; the merit of Abraham, the merit of Moses, the merit of being under the law. Judaism asks, “what’s wrong with that? Plenty. What we have is a cause (merit) which is an effect (merit) which is a cause (humility) which is an effect (humility). That, surely, is not the “essence of the Jewish people,” but rather the quaint quintessence of one or more Midrashic minds.
“May his (the Lubavitcher Rebbe) merits protect us” Rabbi Tani Burton, “Remembering the Lubavitcher Rebbe.”