Rabbi Milevsky's Thought of the Week: Ki Teitzei - 5780
A NUMBER AS A CONCEPT
Towards the end of Pareshat Ki Tetze, the Torah addresses the topic of lashes given to a sinner. The Torah remarks: “If the wicked man be worthy to be beaten, that the judge shall cause him to lie down, and to be beaten before his face, according to his fault, by a certain number. Forty stripes he may give him, and not exceed: lest, if he should exceed, and beat him above these with many stripes, then thy brother should seem vile unto thee.”
Although the simple reading of the verse indicates that 40 lashes are given, the sages of the Talmud (Makot 22b) note that the appropriate reading of the verse is that the court render lashes by a number that leads to 40: namely 39. What we must try to understand is why the Torah uses the number 40 if indeed the tradition teaches that only 39 are given.
In Judaism, when a number appears in a specific context, it is not a coincidence - but rather, the number represents a concept. A perfect example is the number 40. Forty always symbolizes complete change. When the pre-flood world was corrupt and required a new beginning, it rained for 40 days. Likewise, when the children of Israel left Egypt and were required to change from slaves to conquerors, they required 40 years in the desert.
Accordingly, when the Torah remarks that the sinner receives 40 lashes, the message is clear: he must transform himself and become a new person. However, the sages of the Talmud tell us that the court, by giving 39 lashes, is indicating to the person that others can only place the sinner on the brink of change. The real change (40) cannot come from an external source, but rather must come from within. In other words, the sinner, metaphorically speaking, must give himself the last lash to reach 40.