Rabbi Milevsky's Thought of the Week: Ki Teitzei - 5778
CHANGE FROM WITHIN
Towards the end of Pareshat Ki Tetze the Torah addresses the topic of lashes given to a sinner. The Torah remarks that, “Forty strikes he may give him, and not exceed.”
Although the simple reading of the verse indicates that forty 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 forty: namely, thirty-nine. What we must try to understand is why the Torah uses the number forty, if indeed the tradition teaches that only thirty-nine are given.
In Judaism, when a number appears in a specific context, it is not a coincidence, but rather it represents a concept. A perfect example is the number forty. Forty always symbolizes complete change. When the pre-flood world was corrupt and required a new beginning, it rained for forty days. Likewise, when the children of Israel left Egypt and were required to change from slaves to conquerors, they required forty years in the desert.
Accordingly, when the Torah remarks that the sinner receives forty lashes, the message is clear: he must transform himself and become a new person. However, by giving only thirty-nine lashes, we are indicating to the person that others can only place him on the brink of change. Real change (forty) 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 the forty.