On Purim, we have an obligation to imbibe until we can no longer distinguish between “cursed is Haman” and “blessed is Mordechai.” Everyone is familiar with the story of Purim, right? Mordechai is the righteous leader of the Jewish people in King Ahasuerus’ kingdom. He is the good guy. Haman is the bad guy, who wanted to annihilate the Jewish people. Without going into the reason why we should want to reach a stage at which we cannot distinguish between the two, we can ask, what is the best alcoholic drink that can help us accomplish this feat? The answer is, gematria. How do we know? Because the numerical value (the gematria) of “cursed is Haman” (אָרוּר הָמָן) is the same as the numerical value of “blessed is Mordechai” (בָּרוּךְ מָרְדָּכַי), they both equal 502. When we reveal their numerical values, we can’t tell the difference between them.
Purim is a dressing-up festival and gematrias (the numerical values of Hebrew words) reveal that all the words in the world are just numbers in disguise. Different words and expressions that have no apparent connection, are revealed as symbolic masks for the same number. Take the words “light” (אוֹר), “mystery” (רָז), “infinity” (אֵין סוֹף) and “Master of the Universe” (אֲדוֹן עוֹלָם) as examples. They all have the same gematria of 207. Once we know that, the relationship between the words becomes far more profound. Someone who has a penchant for gematria is constantly on a matchmaking spree at a masquerade, where numbers dress-up in ever-changing disguises, and words are exposed as mathematical calculations.
Beyond Good and Evil
The first thing that we experience when we reveal an identity between the numerical values of two words or phrases is a sense of surprise. We have uncovered a startling connection between two words that we may never have related to one another. Next, our astonishment turns into intrigue and we are motivated to contemplate the significance of the equality between them. What is their affinity?
Words with the same numerical value either express a related idea, or they reflect each other as direct opposites. “Love” (אַהֲבָה), for example, has the same numerical value as “one” (אֶחָד), both are 13. Mashiach (מָשִׁיחַ) and “snake” (נַחָשׁ) also share their numerical value of 358. They contrast each other.
Gematria takes us to a realm that is beyond good and evil that is not self-explanatory. So gematria doesn’t prove or disprove anything. All that numerical equality between words does is to calmly point at the symbolic camouflage that disguises the same number. It’s a fact that can’t be changed.
Perhaps it is true that you can’t argue with facts. Nonetheless, we can interpret them. Our powers of association and our value system automatically find relationships between words with matching numbers. Once we know that “love” equals “one” we pay more attention to the way love unites us. The equality between love and one points to their similarity. It reveals the fraternity that lies hidden between the words. Knowing that Mashiach equals “snake,” on the other hand, reinforces our fundamental faith in Mashiach’s goodness and the snake’s vice. Their numerical equality shows how diametrically opposed to each they really are. In other words, we begin to realize how Mashiach, the final redeemer, is the rectification of the snake, the first sinner. Mashiach is the holy snake, and the snake is the messiah of the husks.
Let’s take a moment to learn the basic laws of the gematria game, 1) Hebrew is the Holy Tongue, 2) It can be transformed into decimal numbers, 3) the interpretation must be in line with the rest of the Torah, and 4) in keeping with the lighthearted Purim joy, we must remember that gematria shouldn’t be taken too seriously. With these rules in place we will see how numbers speak to us from a level that is beyond verbal communication.
Some people think that “you can say anything with gematria, so it is meaningless.” But, there is a limit to how many Hebrew expressions have the same numerical value. Especially when we commit ourselves to choosing phrases from authentic Jewish sources.
When we contemplate a gematria, the best way to begin is by finding as many expressions from the sources that equal that number. Even if words that have the same numerical value do not seem related, carefully contemplating their meanings will reveal the affinity between them.
When we contemplate the number 502 in this way, we discover that it is not only the numerical value of “cursed is Haman” and “blessed is Mordechai,” it is also the numerical value of “simple faith” (אֱמוּנָה פְּשׁוּטָה). In Kabbalah, this refers to the highest level of the soul, Radla, the superconscious head of the soul that we aspire to reach on Purim. There, we discover the common soul root of Mordechai and Haman.
In keeping with the Purim mood, we will add that 502 is also the numerical value of “God believes in gematria” (אֱ־לֹהִים מַאֲמִין בְּגִימַטְרִיאַ). If He believes in it, how can we not (once we have checked that the gematria is correct, of course)?
The verse “for it [the Torah] is not something empty of you” relates to the Torah as a whole. The sages expounded, “If it is empty – of you.” If something in the Torah appears to be empty, it is from you and because of you, because you have not taken enough pains to understand it. This is also true of gematrias. And particularly so: the numerical value of “gematrias” (גִימַטְרִיאוֹת) is 679, the same as the numerical value of “for it is not something empty of you” (כִּי לֹֽא דָבָר רֵק הוּא מִכֶּם).
The Mishnah states that like a sweet that is served at the end of the meal, so gematrias are “desserts for the Torah.” But, don’t forget to eat the main course! Gematria is not the only way to analyze words in the Torah. Neither is it the principal way to do so. It is best served after a comprehensive study that relates to all the other aspects of the word, such as delving into its meaning and its root, the phrases that relate to it etc. Then the gematria completes the meal and enriches it with its sweet taste and tantalizing hue.
Amalek, the Skeptic Decapitator
Haman was a descendent of the Amalekite king, Agag. The gematria of Amalek (עֲמָלֵק) is 240. the simplest way of writing this number in Hebrew letters is reish-mem (רָם), which means “haughty.” Transposing the two letters gives the word “bitter” (מַר). Amalek carries himself upon high and embitters the fate of Israel. His end is “high” (רָם) and “bitter” (מַר), too. King Ahasuerus had Haman hanged on a tree that was fifty cubits high.
The Ba’al Shem Tov pointed out that the numerical value of Amalek is also the numerical value of “doubt” (סָפֵק). In the psyche, Amalek is like a worm that penetrates one’s mind when one is “tired and exhausted” and nibbles away at one’s faith until one is eaten away with doubts. This is why, as long as the Jewish people fought against Amalek they were in a place called Refidim (רְפִידִים). The name alludes to weak heartedness (רִפְיוֹן יָדַיִם), which is paralysis that stems from irresolution. Only once they were victorious over Amalek (by Moses raising his hands in prayer) did the Jewish people succeed in extricating themselves from their timidness, to stand in perfect faith at the foot of Mt. Sinai and receive the Torah.
Amalek’s skepticism works by instilling doubt in our belief system, blocking the passage between the mind and the body. Nothing satisfies a skeptic. His very presence wreaks havoc with our ability to act. He twists our mind around, and sends it back empty handed. This is the meaning of the verse, “For a hand is upon the throne of Kah, God’s war against Amalek in every generation.” The Name Kah (י־ה) is spelled with the first two letters of the essential Name, Havayah. They symbolize the head. The second two letters (וה) symbolize the body. Amalek means “the nation that decapitates” (עַם מֹלֵק). He seizes the head in order to detach it from the body. He wants our thoughts to remain hovering in the air without ever actualizing them. He attempts to create a vision without reality, a mind without a heart.
The sages state that when God redeemed the Children of Israel from Egypt, the nations of the world were so stunned that they couldn’t fight against them. Amalek was the first to jump into this boiling bath of faith and cool it down enough for them to jump in too. Amalek wants to take our burning enthusiasm to serve God and exchange it for the coldness of hypocrisy, to cool our enthusiasm for doing what is right, to believe that the world is cold and random. Amalek tempts us to live in virtual reality detached from our emotions and from the people around us. All of his disguises have the same purpose, to lock our hearts in deep-freeze.
Amalek’s chilly skepticism is first attacked with the fire of faith. The heart warms the cold mind, softens its sharp edges, filling it with warmth, compassion and sympathy. Amalek’s icy intellect allows us to describe such feelings but prevents us from experiencing them. Our first come-back is to re-ignite the flame of the heart, “with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your might.”
The fire of faith is a good beginning, but we mustn’t stop there. We need to beat Amalek at his own game. To cut down a forest you need an axe with a wooden handle, so the saying goes. In our case, we need to be skeptic about doubt, and to be a cynic when it comes to heresy. We need to instill doubt in the haughty status that skepticism holds in enlightened culture. The meteoric rise of cynicism to a super-ideal is a clear example of a servant who has become king. Purim is the right time to turn the tables and send him back to his natural abode as a tool in the hands of pure faith. Being Jewish means disbelieving in atheism.
Absolute Freezing Point
In order to beat Amalek, we need to drop to his icy temperature. Can we measure hypocrisy by degrees? Rebbe Nachman of Breslov says we can. He identified two types of hypocrites, two degrees of coldness. The first type of hypocrisy stems from secular wisdom. The individual becomes enamored with non-Jewish resources of philosophy and art and they slowly corrode his heart and cool his enthusiasm for God’s service. But this is only the first level of hypocrisy. A relatively warm type of coldness. Of this type of hypocrisy, the Mishnah states, “Know what to reply to a hypocrite.” Since secular wisdom is based on rational thought, we can refute it with rational responses. There is hope that we can bring those who are held in its clasp back into the fold.
The second degree of hypocrisy is not intellectual. It originates in the gaping abyss that lies beneath philosophy. In Kabbalah, secular wisdom was created through the letters with which the world was created. Like the empty page on which the letters are written, the plane beneath wisdom originates from the vacuum in which it was created. This type of hypocrisy stems from internal doubts that eat away at the heart. Rational intellect is not warm enough to melt the icebergs, “all those who come there shall not return.” The only thing capable of melting the icy heart of such a hypocrite is the music of a truly righteous individual. The source of such music is higher than the source of intellectual wisdom.
These are two degrees of hypocrisy that Rebbe Nachman enumerated, but there is a third, which is the gravest of all: the hypocrisy of Amalek. Amalek is the super-cool root of all hypocrisy. Theoretically, temperatures can rise to infinity. But, the third law of thermodynamics teaches us that there is a limit to how cold you can get: Absolute zero. This is the temperature at which all chemical activity stops completely. Approximately minus 273 degrees Celsius.
We can rise forever higher in our faith. Torah scholars in particular constantly climb from level to level, they “have no rest, neither in this world, nor in the world to come.” But the freezing point of hypocrisy is limited to -273º. Amalek would like us to deteriorate to that level, where no action can be taken. This third and final level of hypocrisy chills skepticism to the last degree. The melodies of the righteous individual are not potent enough to save someone who has fallen to his level. If the second type of hypocrisy stems from the empty vacuum, then absolute zero originates from the initial point of contraction that preceded it. This point is the black hole that gapes wide open at the heart of creation, dragging all energy into Amalek’s worm hole of doubt.
Below Absolute Zero
Who can extricate our frozen hypocrite from absolute freezing point? In desperation, we might seek out the appropriate gematria to redeem him: 273. The basic letters that form this number are reish-ayin-gimel (רע”ג). In this order the letters have no meaning, but other arrangements of the same letters form the roots “rebuke” (גער), “reduce” (גרע), “calm” (רגע), “yearn” (ערג). At absolute zero, everything is indeed very calm, and we yearn to liven things up a bit by adding some warmth. Rebuke is indeed one way of heating things up, but we can’t do it ourselves. God’s rebuke has the power boil the ocean to such an extent that it dries up. This will certainly help reduce Amalek’s haughty skepticism.
Once we have a number, we can contemplate it further from a mathematical perspective. Since 273 is an odd number, we can find its mid-point: 137. This might ring a bell with anyone who is familiar with modern physics. It is the inverse of the fine-structure constant. One physicist said that ““All good theoretical physicists put this number up on their wall and worry about it.” 137 appears in nature without any dimensions (no degrees, meters or kilograms, for example). It is just there hovering in the universe. But, if it suddenly evaporated, the universe would disappear into oblivion. 137 is one point of certainty within the uncertainty of skepticism. The same number is the electromagnetic coupling constant. If Amalek’s greatest desire is to detach the mind from the body, then this number is most helpful as a connecting force to hold them together. We could write a book (with lots of gematrias) about the significance of this number that could convince even the greatest skeptics… Of course, we could also teach our icy-cold cynic lots of Kabbalah. The numerical value of Kabbalah (קַבָּלָה) is 137.
When we meet Amalek face-to-face in everyday life, what is the best tool to use to overcome his skeptic sneer? Did we mention that the numerical value of “gematria” (גימטריא) is 273? Absolute zero is minus “gematria” degrees. This opens up a crazy opportunity. Could it be that gematrias might retrieve someone trapped in heresy at absolute freezing point?
This idea is upheld from the only place in the Torah where the number 273 appears explicitly. In the Book of Numbers, God commanded Moses to exchange the 20,273 firstborns who were originally intended to serve in the Temple, with the 20,000 Levites. 273 firstborns remained with no Levite to take their place. God commanded Moses to redeem them with silver. The Levites played music in the Temple, but, like the music of the tzadik who can redeem some people from skepticism, they could redeem most of the firstborns, but not all of them. 273 more had to be redeemed via other means. In order to redeem our skeptical hypocrite from 273 degrees below freezing point, we need the silvery sparkle of gematria.
Be Holy, Stay Cool
Are you serious? You may ask. Do you really think that playing with words and numbers can turn a hypocrite into a believer, where even a profound melody by a righteous individual could not move him? The answer is yes, but like a good joke, it depends how you tell it. Gematrias can only act when they are offered with icy coldness. If you get too excited about them, they just disperse like a wisp of dust on a windy day, and are related to as such. But, if you know how to shoot a gematria in the air with precision, the correct intention, and at the right moment, there is a chance that it will crack the ice at absolute zero and stab the frozen heart of a cynical skeptic. If you remain cool, calm and collected. Because of the uncertainty principle, so physicists explain, at the quantum level, even at absolute zero there is still a speck of “zero-point energy.” One quantum leap can jump-start it to life.
Slithering through a worm-hole full of doubts at absolute zero, we can exit from the other side alive to wait around the corner, one step ahead of Amalek. If you want to know how to really be cooler than Amalek, just find out the gematria of Mordechai (מָרְדָכַי).
Gematria is a potent alcoholic beverage. Drink it on the rocks.