The Numbers Man

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08 Aug 2007

“I’m a numbers man,” he said the first time I met him, “Always have been, always will be. I live by the numbers. If you want to know what I think about a deal, don’t talk about location, and don’t tell me about the bricks. Just show me the numbers.”

So for seven years I showed Benny Z. the numbers on every investment deal that crossed my desk while I worked in the commercial brokerage firm of A.G. and Associates. Benny was considered the company’s number one top agent, but he was also considered something of a whiz-kid brain trust. He often functioned like a human calculator and his powers of analysis made A.G. a rich man, not to mention all those commissions that landed in the pockets of various A.G. associates.

And whenever Benny took a breather and went on vacation, which he did every three to four months, he lived hard by the numbers in Las Vegas. He was a pretty slick craps shooter and a black-jack fanatic who put his Midas touch on all the Boulevard’s casino probabilities. In the many years I’ve known him, he has never left the state of Nevada with a loss on his books.

Benny was not only a numbers man in business, he was a numbers man in the varying aspects of his religious consciousness. He conscientiously showed his face at the synagogue twice a year for high holiday services, conscientiously belonged to an exclusively Jewish country club where he maintained a wickedly low handicap on the golf course, and conscientiously stood up at JUF dinners to make extravagantly large donations to the federation’s fund. But on rare days when he had nothing better to do, he would sit in the office and amuse himself by asking me to explain G-d…from an Orthodox point of view, and strictly by the numbers.

“Well Benny”, I once said, “It’s a funny thing about G-d and His numbers. They have some very interesting properties in common. Take infinity, for example.”

But some things defy the numbers so I asked him to consider the chronological age of Abraham and Sarah by the time Isaac came into the picture. Isaac was most definitely a statistical long shot in terms of jump starting the population of a Jewish nation, but…

“Go outside Benny,” I told him. “Count the stars in the sky. Then go to the ocean and count the sand on the seashore. That’s G-d’s relationship to the Jewish people, by the numbers.”

“G-d’s relationship to the Jewish people, by the numbers?” he questioned, “How about the number six- million?”

“That’s a very tough number”, I admitted. “Some say it was a security deposit for the State of Israel, although I never cared much for that observation. But I do recall the mathematicians talking about irrationals in the system, and quite a few turned out to be important… pi and e, if I remember correctly. So maybe six million falls into the category of being important and irrational. Some numbers are like that, you know.”

Benny was never satisfied with any of our conversations and then in one horrific year, two of his bothers were diagnosed with rare forms of inoperable cancer. He consulted the doctors, listened to the prognoses, asked for the numbers and studied the survival charts. Then he went home and tried not to be bitter. I visited him when he sat shiva the first time, and visited again when he sat shiva six months later. Benny’s sorrow was so overwhelmingly understandable that I could think of no consolation other than a famous allegory mentioned in the talmud and offered by a woman named Bruria.

When Bruria, the wife of Rabbi Meir, discovered that two of her sons had died on the same Friday afternoon, she waited until the end of Shabbat to break the tragic news to her husband. She began by posing a legal question: If one person borrows two precious jewels from another, what is the proper course of action when the owner requests the return of the jewels? Rabbi Meir responded with the obvious: one is obligated to return the loan upon demand. Then Bruria led her husband to the bodies of their sons and said, “G-d has requested that we return the loan of these two jewels.”

Benny nodded and sighed, “I’ve been a numbers man all my life and right now things don’t look too good for my family line. I’ve got one sister left and she’s been trying to have kids for years. She went through all kinds of treatments and testing and eventually the doctors told her to give up, the odds are against her. She finally decided to put her name on some agency lists. I hear the wait for adoption can be fairly long.”

“Hope and faith,” I reminded him, “are two things that don’t operate according to anybody’s calculations.”

That conversation took place almost a decade ago. I’m thinking about it now because I just came back from Benny’s synagogue. There was a brit milah in his family. Double, as a matter of fact! After all those years, his sister had miraculously and unexpectedly conceived, giving birth to a healthy set of twins. With tears in his eyes, Benny told me that the boys, two new and precious jewels on loan, had been named in memory of their uncles.

“So the numbers are looking up these days?” I asked him.

“I’m learning to count other things, like my blessings”, he answered. “And I’m learning to let go and let G-d. Remember what you once said about hope and faith? Well, you begin to rely on that after all the computations are finished, because there are moments when you suddenly understand you’ve got nothing else left to count on. And then when you get really smart you finally understand something else. There are things in life both rational and irrational. But mostly there are things in life that have nothing to do………..with the numbers.”

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.