Rabbi Elie Feder PhD.
Are you a bit skeptical of gematria? Well, I was. Until I discovered how Chazal use gematria to direct our attention to a very specific type of idea. Let me provide one example.
Hashem’s Blessing to Avraham
The Torah describes Hashem’s blessing to Avraham (Bereishis 24:1): “Avraham was old, advanced in age. And Hashem blessed Avraham with everything.” What does it mean that Hashem blessed Avraham בכל ,with everything? What does “everything” refer to? One would naturally think it refers to length of days, honor, wealth, and children (as Ibn Ezra and Ramban suggest). However, Rashi offers a surprising explanation of בכל ,everything, based upon its gematria (52) being the same as that of בן, a son. Thus, Rashi interprets the pasuk as teaching that Hashem blessed Avraham with a son.
On the surface, this difficult explanation seems to be diminishing Hashem’s stated blessing to Avraham. The pasuk says, “Hashem blessed Avraham with everything,” and Rashi limits it to only one thing - a son. What motivated Rashi to avoid the plain interpretation? Furthermore, as familiar as it is, reinterpreting a word based upon its numerical value seems troubling. What is the purpose - here and everywhere - of using gematria to teach a lesson?
The Meaning of Everything
What would it mean for a person to have everything? If you met a genie who offered to grant you everything, what would you request? If you began compiling a list, how long would it be? One page? Two pages? Think about it for a moment. Imagine you spent time making your list and finally decided that you were done. The genie kindly asks you: “Are you done? Are you sure? Last chance …” I don’t know about you, but I’d probably hesitate and say something like: “Hold on; give me a few minutes; I can probably think of a few more things…”
Now let’s put genies aside and return to reality. A person will rarely say, “I have everything.” We seem hardwired to want more. If we have a million dollars, we want two million; once we get two million, we want four million, etc. King Solomon wisely noted (Koheles 5:9): “He who loves money will not be satisfied with money.” It’s no wonder that our list never ends - that we can never say, “I have everything.”
Now let’s consider the statement that Hashem blessed Avraham with everything. Could he possibly have had everything? Isn’t that unattainable? The answer can be found by analyzing the character traits of the tzaddik (the righteous person) and contrasting it with that of the average person.
The tzaddik can differentiate between his needs and his wants. While his needs can be determined by an accurate assessment of his nature and what will truly satisfy him, his wants emerge from his unexamined wishes and unrealistic fantasies. His needs are finite; his wants are infinite. While the tzaddik can distinguish between the two, the average person often gets confused. Thus, the tzaddik can die satisfied because his finite needs can be attained. On the other hand, the average person must die unsatisfied because his infinite wants cannot possibly be fulfilled.
Explaining the Gematria
Let’s revisit the problems with Rashi’s gematria. If the pasuk says Hashem blessed Avraham with everything, why does Rashi limit it to a son? Furthermore, why does he take the word בכל out of its plain meaning and convert it into a number? We can answer that Rashi is dealing with a problem: While Hashem gave Avraham many things, how can the pasuk claim that He gave him everything? How is it even possible to attain everything? The answer is that it is only possible for someone like Avraham — someone who makes an accurate assessment of his life and determines what he truly needs. Then, if those needs are met, he can truly say that Hashem has given him everything.
Let us now consider Avraham’s list of everything. Would it be as long as ours? Would it have length of days, great honor, extreme wealth, and many children? True, Hashem gave him all these things — but would they be on his list? Did he need these things? Rashi is telling us: No! His list was very short; it had only one item — a son. Why was his list so short? Avraham discovered Hashem and devoted his life to helping people and teaching them about Hashem. In his wisdom, Avraham assessed that without a son to carry on his mission, it would all be lost with his death. Therefore, Avraham had but one need: a son. For him, a son was everything. As such, Rashi isn’t denying the plain interpretation that Hashem granted Avraham many things, but he doesn’t want us to think that they alone could have satisfied Avraham. On the contrary, Avraham needed only one thing — a son.
One question remains: Why teach this lesson through a gematria? Why do we need to butcher a word to convey this message? We can answer that the use of gematria is deliberate. The gematria converts a word into a number. But not just any word; it takes בכל ,a word with infinite implication, and makes it finite. It converts “everything” to a mere quantity — 52. The gematria teaches us that, for Avraham, “everything” was not infinite, as it is for others. Because of Avraham’s realistic view of his needs, בכל was finite — it is merely another word whose quantity is 52 — a son. Gematria is precisely the appropriate vehicle to teach this idea. Taking a word and making it into a number is not butchering the word; on the contrary, it is preparing it beautifully, presenting it ready-made for our mind’s consumption. The gematria directs our minds to the nature of the idea that Rashi is elucidating.
You may be wondering: Can this be done with other gematrias? The short answer: yes and no. Check out my new book, “Gematria Refigured,” to find out more.