Why 40?

I was recently talking with a group of college students about midrash. We dreamed together about how religious conversation could be different if we asked better questions of the biblical text. I talked them through the commonly used acronym for the midrash layers of discovery (PaRDeS) as we explored a passage together. As we discussed pardes being the Hebrew word for orchard, they quickly saw the connection between this way of study and the name of our nonprofit.

But then a student raised his hand and asked for more.

“But why 40?”

I took the question back to them.

“Well, where do you see the number 40 in the Scriptures?”

The answers came with a mix of tenacity and tentativeness.

“How long it rained in the story of Noah’s ark.”
“How many days Jesus spent in the wilderness.”
“How many years the people of Israel wandered in the desert.”

I affirmed their brilliance, especially those who threw in some nuggets like the reigns of Old Testament kings, and continued.

“So what if the numbers in the biblical text aren’t just historical facts? What if they mean something?”

It just so happens that the narratives surrounding the number 40 all seem to contain transition. There are the stories of endings and beginnings, as people move from the narrowness of what was into the possibilities of what might be. There are the layers of letting go and holding on that growth requires. There are the emotions of loss, grief, uncertainty, hope, struggle, and trust that reflect the reality of the human experience of change.

It also just so happens that the gestation of a human baby is 40 weeks. Which tends to be a time of transition containing all the aforementioned layers and then some.

What if 40 is a number that symbolizes renewal and awakening?

It was fun to watch their heads explode as we connected biblical passages to the birth of a human child. It reminded me how new it can be to think this way- to connect ancient spiritual stories to current human experience. And to do so with some room left for mystery and wonder.

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I don’t know about you, but I’m ready to come to life again.

For me, the end of summer is stumbling chaos. As I try to navigate the schedule changes and task lists, I get overwhelmed. And once I arrive here, at the beginning of September, I realize what I thought was a finish line is actually a starting line. It doesn’t take much for my emotions to flood.

I find hope in the (re)starting of rhythms. I can choose Sabbath. I can make space for the people and places that are life-giving to me. I can ask God to reveal what I need to let go of and hold onto. I can breathe my way through the struggle, and wonder if what feels like loss could actually be the pathway to hope.

Photo by qinghill on Unsplash