Parshat Behar-Bechukotai: Ah, To Be Fifty!

This week’s Torah portion, Parshat Behar-Bechukotai, has a lot of information about sacrifices, vows, slaves and agricultural things.  But it briefly mentions the number 50, which is the number designated for the Jubilee Year.  I can’t stop thinking about 50.

I’m one of those people who doesn’t put too much stock in how old I am.  I’ll admit, I sometimes have to stop and do the math when I’m asked.  To be fair, I do the math when I’m asked how old my kids are as well.  I remember birth years, because they don’t change, but ages change annually so I have to do the math.  I remember occasions when I was asked how old I am and I hesitated because I was embarrassed that I had to figure it out (I always know within a year or two but they seem to be asking for accuracy).  The other person says, ‘that’s ok, you don’t have to tell me’, thinking I am embarrassed by my age when I’m actually embarrassed by my memory.  I remember things that are important to me but age has never been that important to me. Except, now I can’t stop thinking about 50.

When I turned 50, a friend of mine joked and said ‘you’re not 50, you’re 39 American’ (to anyone in the U.S. reading this, we Canadians have inside jokes about the value of our dollar as compared to the U.S. dollar …you know, the expression “another day, another 85 cents American”).  The truth is, I never take offence if someone forgets my age (my father (z”l) was never quite sure how old I was and was sometimes off by decades – neither of us cared, I guess that’s where I get it).  But, Judaism seems obsessed with numbers so shouldn’t we also be?

But, it’s not all of the numbers Judaism seems to care about, it’s only certain ones, the “Jewish” ones.  The number 1 represents God, 7 is Shabbat, 8 is days for a bris, 10 commandments, 12 tribes of Israel (sounds like the song at the Seder), 18 is life, 40 is transformation, 49 is Omer, and then… I got nothing.  What happened to 50?

A full life is represented with the number 120, but we take that as a symbolic number, since some lives are full and fulfilling earlier while others can reach 120 in an unhealthy way.  It is not the number, it is the symbol.  But everything up to 49 is not the symbol, it really is the number.  So, what happened after 49?

The Torah seems to stay away from the number 50.  We are counting the Omer now, we are told to count 7 weeks of days which will result in 49 days.  The day after that (day 50) is called Shavuot. There are 50 letters in total when we add up all the names of the Tribes of Israel.  So 50 could represent the unity of Jewish perspective, which we never actually want, so we don’t ascribe any importance to the number of letters in the tribal name count.  The ‘redemption from Egypt’ phrase is mentioned in the Torah 50 times, yet that detail isn’t in the Seder at all.  It took us 50 days to journey from Egypt to Sinai which we don’t pay much attention to either.  

It’s not that there is no importance to 50, it clearly marks important moments.  So it’s not that it doesn’t matter, it’s more that we don’t want to focus on it.  Shavuot is the holiday that will always fall on the 50th day but it is also the only Jewish holiday without a set date in our calendar.  We know it’s Shavuot because it’s the 50th day from the second day of Pesach – we counted.  Next year, we’ll count it again and the date for Shavuot will be determined by the date for Pesach.  The count produces the holiday, not the calendar.

What could be the reason for such hesitation around 50?

Actually, Judaism does show us glimpses of 50, which we peek at from 49.  A soul has 49 chambers, beyond that is the Divine Essence.  The world was created with 50 Gates of Reason but Moses, God’s closest human companion, could only cross 49 of those thresholds.  It is the number that exists in the world and yet we can never get there.  We seem teased by this week’s parshah when it tells us to mark the Jubilee year, the 50th year, with celebration and liberation for everyone and everything.

But today, these glimpses are all we get.  Today, when we get to the Jubilee Year, instead of hitting 50, we start at year 1 again – we never hit 50.

For example, in biblical time, in the Jubilee year, all land transfers nullify, all slaves are freed, all meadows must rest – everything hits ‘reset’.  The value of anything is measured by what year we’re in and how close we are to the Year of Liberation.  If I buy land in year 49 and one year later ownership goes back to the original owner, that land will cost me pennies.  Time becomes a variable in my economy.

One of the reasons stated for this is because God states that we only lease land, since we did not create it, we cannot own it.  The Torah says that we are residents with God on the land.  God is the landlord, we are the tenants and we all live together.  To remind us of this fact, land ownership transfers back and we become ‘residents by grace’ on the land.  It definitely frames the Jewish view of the world and the environment.

But, in reality, the Talmud tells us we could only celebrate the Jubilee for a very small period of time in the Biblical era.  Once we are in the era between the two Temples, we only counted the years to 50 but had no celebration or change of anything.  After the destruction of the 2nd Temple in the 1st century C.E., we don’t even count.  And so, today, there is no practice of a Jubilee year – we stopped noticing 50.

Jewishly, 50 represents everything around us that is always one step ahead of us.  The things we are yet to explore, the growth we are yet to achieve, the person we are yet to become.  Fifty is the step beyond where we are and will always remain the step beyond where we are, no matter how many steps forward we take.

And as I have shared my thoughts on the parshah and the number 50, I have come to a new conclusion.  The next time someone asks me how old I am, I will accurately answer, ‘I’m the same age you are, a Jewish 49.’

Leave a comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.