Any cursory review of history, anthropology or politics shows us that our underlying beliefs tend to shoehorn the facts into what we already think, instead of altering the belief system to conform to the data. It happens in religion and science and … well, just about everything that does not require a utilitarian test (e.g. “I can live without eating or drinking,” or “I can fly if I flap my arms and jump off a tall building”). Within the boundaries of the definitively testable, people can believe any set of explanations.
So we have a choice of what to believe. Indeed, we have to believe something – nobody can live life without assuming that some things are indeed a certain way, more-or-less as a matter of faith. Our beliefs tend to come from our personal experiences: most people assume the language and culture and beliefs that they were born and raised into. But that is not ideal: I think G-d very much wants people to freely and consciously make choices for ourselves, to step beyond merely echoing societal custom and personal inertia.
Free choice, especially the choice of what we believe, is at the very center of Jewish Torah thought. G-d’s existence cannot be logically proven, because otherwise people would not be free to choose not to believe in Him. (Those who think this statement is incorrect should ask themselves why other intelligent people who believe in a different faith (or atheism) have no difficulty sleeping at night.)
The Torah explains this to us using an example, one that could be compared to any news story today: Avram miraculously wins a battle (Gen 14). One of his allies, the King of Sodom, sees the victory as Avram’s. But another observer, Malchizedek, sees that the enemy was delivered into Avram’s hands by G-d.
The same battle. Two separate observers. One sees the existence of the divine, and the other does not. Which one of them is right?
Neither is necessarily wrong, at least not based on the data in front of them. (It is one reason why different people may indeed be “entitled to their own facts.”) This is the classic division between the atheist and the religionist. Confronted with precisely the same information, they will assign different root causes. There is no way to prove that one is correct and the other is in error.
So why is the Torah telling us this story? I think it is because what Avram does next creates a ritual that Judaism and Christianity have enshrined in our daily practice – tithing. Avram witnesses the blessing of G-d, and then in response, Avram gives one-tenth of the spoils to Malchizedek.
The pattern is set by Avram, and reinforced later in the Torah: Jacob promises to “set aside, of all that you give me, a tenth for [G-d].” (Gen: 28:22) It is an acknowledgement that our blessings are given to us by G-d, not by nature, or even from other men.
The next time the word “ten” is used is when Jacob complains that his father-in-law, Laban, changed his wages “ten times.” Laban is playing G-d, suggesting that paying Jacob for labor is really a divine blessing from Laban to his son-in-law. It is Laban’s daughters who reject their father’s assumption that he is in fact the source of Jacob’s blessings. Instead, thanks for the negotiated settlement that Jacob gets to keep all the spotted and speckled sheep, Jacob’s wives see plainly that these blessings were not accidental: they credit G-d as well:
Truly, all the wealth [ten] that God has taken away from our father belongs to us and to our children. Now then, do just as God has told you.” (Gen. 31:16)
Blessings, say Rachel and Leah, come from G-d, and not from men. Jacob’s success was from G-d, just as was Avram’s miraculous victory. But it was up to Jacob and Rachel and Leah to acknowledge and choose to see it this way, to cleave to G-d instead of to man.
In Torah Hebrew, the word “ten” and “wealth” are the same three letters. When someone is rich, he has “ten.” He has received material blessings from G-d, and he should acknowledge it.
So why, of all numbers, is the special number “ten”?
The answer is found by discovering that in the Torah itself, the number is not arbitrary. And we know this because of how and where the number “ten” is used elsewhere in the text.
The first example of the stand-alone value “ten” in the Torah is during the flood. Gen 8:5:
In the tenth month, G-d shows salvation. He separates the flood from causing death, giving the world the opportunity for life once again. He blessed humanity and the world.
Of course, we could choose to see the emerging mountains another way. Mountains are themselves pagan gods (Mt. McKinley’s “new” name is the native god name for the mountain). People instinctively worship objects that are big or powerful or high, so the newly-visible mountains at the end of the flood might otherwise inspire worship to such a deity. One ordinarily would pray to a mountain, so to see an invisible and non-corporeal G-d as the real power is a mental leap.
Indeed, crediting only what we can directly sense supports paganism and Gaia-worship. If we start with “The Laws of Nature,” then anything that happens is because nature wishes it to be that way. Got nailed by a hurricane or tornado? Mother Nature is obviously mad at mankind because someone did not recycle a can.
This is the choice we have. At any moment, we might think that our accomplishments are due to “the mountain” or mother nature. Seeing G-d’s involvement and giving Him credit is just like looking at the emerging mountain top after the flood, and realizing that the receding waters are not because the mountain is “winning” or because of the laws of nature, but because G-d is causing the waters to recede. The data does not tell us either way, so the choice is ours.
The number “ten” keeps appearing in the text, and it consistently means the same thing. Avraham negotiates with G-d over saving Sodom and Gomorrah, but it comes down to whether or not ten righteous men can be found in the city. The number “ten” is the quorum necessary to receive collective blessings. As with the flood, “ten” is the number signifying a future, a new life.
The Torah tells us that when Jacob’s family is hungry during the famine, brothers went down to try to buy grain. But there was no reason why Egypt had to sell grain that it had stored for itself. The brothers were looking for divine blessing and salvation in their mission. Which helps explain why “ten of Joseph’s brothers went down to get grain rations in Egypt.”
What happens? Eventually, after the tribulations, Joseph replied to Jacob using the very same significant number!
Joseph is telling his father that he is really Joseph, a family member who knows what the number “ten” signifies. Joseph is assuring his father that coming to Egypt would offer the family G-d’s blessing and salvation. The connection to when the flood waters receded, when Avram won his battle, and to when Jacob had been blessed by G-d to leave Laban’s as a wealthy man, would not have been lost on Joseph’s father.
The number continues to mean the very same thing to the Jewish people! Ex. 12:3, when the Jewish people are slaves awaiting divine intervention to leave Egypt:
Speak to the whole community of Israel and say that on the tenth of this month each of them shall take a lamb to a family, a lamb to a household.
Commanding us to recognize the tenth day, starting the sequence of leaving Egypt, is a way of telling us to prepare to receive divine salvation.
And there is another element to this recognition: the opportunity to do so in a meaningful and material way: Abram and Jacob tithed – they gave one-tenth as a token to show appreciation for their blessings. So when the people are told to take a lamb on the tenth of the month, it is also preparing them imitate Avram and Jacob, to strengthen the divine relationship, the reciprocity that happens when mankind chooses to recognize the blessings we receive.
Num: 18:21-26 commands us to give “from the ten” of all of our agricultural harvest to the Levites. And Deuteronomy 14:22-28 contains another tithing commandment, that
The Torah has wrapped it all in a bow. Giving “from the ten” echoes Avram’s decision to credit his victory to G-d, as well as Jacob, Rachel and Leah for seeing things the same way.
I think there is another important connection as well. It is reasonable to assume that we use Base 10 counting because we have ten fingers. Similarly, a person who works and earns a living might quite logically want to credit himself – he did work with his own two hands (and ten fingers) after all! So giving a tithe is specifically rejecting the idea that it is we who are the source of our prosperity: yes, we used our own hands, but we followed in the footsteps of our forefathers who paved the way for this understanding.
This is our choice: We can choose to ascribe our blessings to man, nature, other deities or even ourselves. Or we can choose to do as have countless ancestors: we credit G-d.
P.S. The imagery of the tops of the mountains becoming visible at the end of the flood is echoed later on in the Torah (Ex. 19:20 and 24:17):
These verses tell us that G-d is found at the top of the mountain at a time when he is giving a gift (the Torah itself) to the people. The top of the mountain is connected to divine presence and connection to the people.
P.P.S. The word for “top” found in the flood is the very same word as the first word in the Torah, which is commonly translated as “In the beginning.” That first verse could also be translated as “In the top.” “Rosh” Hahar. The same word as “Reishit” – for “In the Beginning.” The head of the world’s creation was the action of G-d. So when we see the word “top” it is a remembrance that G-d is both at the top and at the origin of all that we can sense.
[another @susanquinn and @iwe production!]