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Learning How To Count

October 31, 2020

As a teenager, I spent several summers at summer camp in a remote, mountainous area of Pennsylvania, a couple of hours away from the closest big city. I remember noticing at night how many stars I could see. Having temporarily escaped the light (and air) pollution of a big city, the stars shone brighter, and there were so many more that were visible. It truly was beautiful and refreshing.

I imagine that this is what Avraham (at the time, Avram) must have seen when Hashem instructed him to look up at the stars:

ויצא אתו החוצה ויאמר הבט נא השמימה וספר הכוכבים אם וכל לספר אתם ויאמר לו כה יהיה זרעך.

And He (Hashem) took him (Avraham) outside and said, ‘Gaze toward the sky and count the stars if you are able to count them.’ And He said to him, ‘So shall your offspring be.’ (Bereishit 15:5)

Avraham must have looked up and been wowed by the number and beauty of the stars, symbols of his future descendants.

However, a student of mine asked a strong question. Though it might be an impressive site, there aren’t actually that many stars that are visible in the sky. There are various estimates suggested, but most assume that although there are about a septillion (!) stars in existence, only approximately 5000 of them are visible from earth. Plus, the earth itself obscures the view, so really only about half of those are visible from any one point. [1] Add to that light pollution, and the number of stars that Avraham saw was probably not that impressive! So why does Hashem emphasize that Avraham should look at the stars and count them to impress upon him the great number of his descendants?

Rashi is also bothered by the beginning of the verse, that Hashem took him outside? Of course you can’t see the stars from inside, and Avraham had to leave his house to gaze upon the sky! So what is being taught by those words, “ויוצא אתו החוצה, And he took him outside?” Rashi presents three possibilities, but we will focus on third. He writes:

הוֹצִיאוֹ מֵחֲלָלוֹ שֶׁל עוֹלָם וְהִגְבִּיהוֹ לְמַעְלָה מִן הַכּוֹכָבִים, וְזֶהוּ לְשׁוֹן הַבָּטָה מִלְמַעְלָה לְמַטָּה.

He brought him forth from the terrestrial sphere, elevating him above the stars. And this is why He uses the term הבט (look) when he said “look the heavens,” for this word signifies looking from above downward. [2]

Meaning, when the Torah writes that Hashem “took Avraham out,” it refers to removing Avraham from the earth upon which we live, and bringing him high above the stars. So high, in fact, that Avraham had to look down in order to gaze upon the stars.

Now we can understand why Avraham was so impressed! He didn’t just see the 2500 stars that you or I can see on a very clear day in the mountains. He saw billions and trillions of stars (probably still not all septillion)! He had a view that no human has seen before or since, sitting with Hashem in the sky, viewing the stars down below.

And those, Hashem told him, represent your children. The stars below symbolize the future of the Jewish people.

Sometimes being a Jew can feel lonely in this world. After all, in a world of 7.594 billion people (I am getting very into numbers this week), we represent a meager 14.7 million (tragically and unbelievably, still almost 2 million fewer Jews than there were before WWII). We, as a people, are very small. But that’s only because we’re looking from down below. When you look up at the stars, you only see a few of them. Only a tiny fraction of their true power and quantity is accessible to the human eye. There is another view, the perspective of Hashem, the glimpse granted to Avraham, and the understanding that is implanted into each of our hearts, that shows a vastly different picture. The power of the Jewish people in our faith, determination, perseverance, innovation, kindness, and morals is something that cannot necessarily be seen, but is certainly known. But even in number, indeed, we are as vast as the septillion stars above. Right now there may only be about 15 million of us, but if you count going all the way back to Avraham, and continue counting לעולם ועד, through the eternal existence of our people, you’d be surprised what number you’d get to. The stars are truly numerous beyond our comprehension, and so, in truth, are the Jewish people. You just have to know how to look.

Good Shabbos!

Rabbi Fox


[i] https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2013/11/how-many-stars-are-there-in-the-sky/281641/#:~:text=An%20extremely%2C%20yep%2C%20tiny%20little,those%20from%20where%20you%20stand.

[ii] Translation from Sefaria.org

 

Wed, October 27 2021 21 Cheshvan 5782