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Drowning in Numbers

A haftorah of counting down and living it up

Liel Leibovitz
May 14, 2010
Argentina’s Diego Maradona kisses the World Cup trophy after defeating West Germany 3-2 in the 1986 final, held the Azteca Stadium in Mexico City.(Allsport UK/Getty Images)
Argentina’s Diego Maradona kisses the World Cup trophy after defeating West Germany 3-2 in the 1986 final, held the Azteca Stadium in Mexico City.(Allsport UK/Getty Images)

Here’s how this week’s haftorah, taken from the book of Hosea, begins: “And the number of the children of Israel shall be as the sand of the sea, which shall neither be measured nor counted.”

And yet counting is a particularly Jewish obsession. We count the numeric value of letters in search of hidden meaning, and we count the numbers of Jews in each country in the world in search of a glimpse at the future. We believe some numbers—7, 13, 18—have a special, symbolic meaning.

This week, then, I’d like to look back at the evolution of my Jewish identity as represented by a few meaningful numbers.

10: I was 10 years old when I realized for certain that I believed in God. Watching the soccer World Cup religiously, I made the acquaintance of Argentina’s Diego Maradona. He wore No. 10. Playing England in the quarterfinals, he scored a goal with his fist, which none of the referees seemed to have spotted. It was, Maradona later punned, the hand of God. Later in the game, he ran single-handedly across the pitch, hardly touching the ball, bypassing five English outfielders and scoring what is widely considered to be one of the most incredible goals in the history of the game. On our blue corduroy couch at home, I wept. Only the existence of a higher force could explain what I’d just seen.

14: I became a man a year later than Jewish ritual said I did. At 13, reciting the haftorah at my bar mitzvah, I felt like a phony. No matter what the rabbi said, I thought, I was still very much a kid. Thirteen, I snarled, was much too young for anyone to accept the burden of manhood. A year later, however, when my father was arrested and imprisoned and my life changed radically, I realized Judaism had it just right: Lacking a choice, I grew up overnight. I was not too young, and all that talk of burdens and responsibilities now made perfect sense.

17: To compensate for becoming a man a year too late, I became a soldier a year too early. At 17, I was already wearing the oily, olive-colored uniform of the Israel Defense Forces. I spent 1,155 days in the army and passed most of them thinking about what it meant to be an Israeli and a Jew. Under fire in Lebanon and in Hebron and in Gaza, I had to ask myself repeatedly what I was fighting for and if it was worth it. And every day I decided that it was. I didn’t agree with many of the policies I was sent to enforce, but I was nonetheless proud to know that I contributing, in whatever minuscule a way, to the Zionist project, madly audacious and wildly hopeful and deeply essential. My opinions have since evolved, but I’m still thrilled to know that I did my bit. Whenever I get into an argument about Israeli politics, I’m happy to know that I’ve got the scars to back up my opinions.

318: Is the number of hours I spent on a hunger strike in front of the prime minister’s house in Jerusalem, protesting the stratospheric costs of higher education and the inequity between the fully subsidized ultra-Orthodox yeshivot and the overcrowded, underfunded universities.

500: Was the price, in shekels, of the ambulance ride to the hospital after collapsing during a demonstration in Zion Square.

32,000: Was the annual salary, in dollars, I received after moving to New York and becoming a novice press officer at the Consulate General of Israel in New York in 2000.

150,000: Is the sum, in dollars, the foreign ministry is now paying its “Internet warfare team” to tweet for Israel.

6,000,000: Is the number with which each I, like so many Jews, begin and end so many thoughts. When I was young, my favorite television show was The Six Million Dollar Man, which, in Israel, was called The Man Worth Millions. I was just learning English when the show came on, and I asked my mother why the show’s Hebrew name was changed. She said it was because of the Holocaust. I asked what the Holocaust was. Not even Lee Majors could prepare me for the answer.

Now, dear readers, if you are so inclined, kindly comment below and share some of your meaningful numbers. To get you started, here’s a terrific song from Israel’s hip hop band HaDag Nachash, all about the numbers that really count in life.

Liel Leibovitz is a senior writer for Tablet Magazine and a host of the Unorthodox podcast.

Liel Leibovitz is editor-at-large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One. He is the editor of Zionism: The Tablet Guide.