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In the face of evil, choose life

One recent morning when my laptop suddenly died, I scurried to the comfort of our family computer to make a few online purchases. Some days earlier, a new credit card had mysteriously arrived in the mail for me, three years before the expiration date of my old one. This move by the card company, I speculated, was likely motivated by the creation of some new, more secure chip technology to prevent fraud and theft.

Feeling mighty secure, I pulled the card from its envelope, activated it over the phone and set out to shop. As I came to the online check-out, I input the card information and was then asked for the 3 digit security code. Turning it over to the back, I imagined Damien, the evil boy who is the demonic antichrist in the cult film classic, “The Omen,” staring at me. The code was 666 — the numerical mark of the ancient beast of Christian scripture that occupies an outsized legacy in the annals of demon lore and popular superstition.

The author.

The author. Image by Unknown (courtesy of Dan Ornstein)

The original story of the beast and its numerical mark is one of the very early Jewish and Christian “end-of-the-world” stories. In them, God brings to heel the cosmic forces of evil and chaos, such as the infamous beast with his 3 digit ID bracelet. The number, 666, is what ancient Jews called a Gematria, establishing the symbolic numerical equivalent of Hebrew letters that, in this case, spell out the name of Nero the Caesar.

Nero was the famously brutal emperor of Rome during the time that the Romans were violently suppressing a major revolt by the Jews of Jerusalem, between the years 66-68 CE. It’s no surprise that in the midst of such cataclysmic upheaval, the writer of this story would associate those beastly forces of world-ending chaos with Nero.

Feeling a bit unsettled, I reminded myself that getting the randomly generated number 666 on my credit card was nothing to freak out about. All of this stuff about the beast with his legendary number of evil is superstition rooted in early Christian mysticism and even some Jewish folklore, none of which I believed in as a believing Jew. Showing the card to my wife, I thought to myself, “Dan, you’re being ridiculous. Your computer didn’t break because of your credit card security number. Let this go!”

I bought a new computer, I loaded it up all in one day — and then that brand spanking new computer died on me as well, the victim of a factory defect. I trudged back to the store, got another new computer, and had my outstanding IT consultant load it up. As it woke up, purring to life, my wife texted me to tell me that her company laptop had inexplicably shut down. Feeling horror movie shivers tingling up and down my back, I texted my wife to see what she was going to do without her work computer. All she texted in reply were the numbers…666. As all this was happening, our already-mediocre home Wifi began to disconnect with even fiercer vengeance, while later that night, my very dependable exercise bike shut down in the middle of my workout.

By that point, my rationality had gone the way of alchemy and other ancient stupidities. I commenced plotting a DIY exorcism, an incantation using the numbers 666 in a different fashion, like a Gematria number in reverse, to undo this dark possession.

I found myself at that moment doing some of my own Gematria. Looking at the three sixes, I realized that they add up to the number 18, whose Hebrew letter equivalents form the word, chai, which means…to live.

This was my message from God, speaking to me, as it were, through my credit card company.

“Dan, stop fretting about fantastical beasts on high that populate ancient texts and modern pop culture.

Heaven knows, we have enough real beasts threatening human existence right here on earth, right now.

Choose life.

And for heaven’s sake, if it makes you feel better, get a new credit card!”

Which I did.

A beautiful message, that Gematria, but it still causes me no small amount of anxiety. Even after a fair number of years of living, I’m not always sure what I mean by a commitment to choose life, beyond the sermons and Facebook memes. Here I am again, watching summer’s vigorous green being gently edged out by autumn’s brilliantly dying reds, yellows, oranges; here we all are, feeling precariously positioned at the steep edges of America’s very dangerous political and cultural cliffs. Rosh Hashanah, the world’s birthday, beckons to me with celebrations of life, but they feel platitudinous to me this year. Opening the maḥzor (the high holiday prayer book) I struggle wearily to understand, at this moment, the words written by my long-gone ancestors who drew faith from them then:

Zokhreinu l’ḥayyim Melekh ḥafetz ba-ḥayyim… Remember us for life, Ruler Who desires life.

Like that 6-6-6 that became 18 before my eyes, the words of the old prayer uncannily become new to me. I see another way to read them: Help us to remember to live, Ruler Who desires us, the living.

Life and death are both fully in our control and fully beyond our control. We cannot transcend mortality, yet our destructive capacity to accelerate mortality’s march is a weapon of potential annihilation in our hands. God, the source and essence of life, wants us to live, needs us to live, calls us to remember to live.

How do we remember to live?

By remembering how our ancestors refused to succumb to the forces of hatred and death, bequeathing to us, the living, their unending words.

By performing the daily, dazzling human acts that sustain life and the living.

By perpetuating hope that being alive, and each living being, are more than random accidents of history and evolution; our lives and our passion for living are the greatest responses to God’s most fervent prayer:

“Choose life.”

Dan Ornstein is rabbi at Congregation Ohav Shalom and a writer living in Albany, N.Y. He is the author of “Cain v. Abel: A Jewish Courtroom Drama.” (The Jewish Publication Society 2020)

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