Sermon: On three, for a triple Bar Mitzvah

Written by Rabbi Josh Levy — 6 May 2017

One of the most famous of the biblical prophet stories is that of Elijah and the widow of Tzarefat.
In the time of Ahab and Jezebel, Elijah, having stopped the rains at God’s bidding, is sent for protection and sustenance to the house of a widow in Sidon – which is to the North of the then Kingdom of Israel, what’s now Lebanon.
While in the widow’s house, Elijah performs a miracle with a jar of flour and a jug of oil: a single spoonful of ground flour and a little oil in a jug are never used up.  After this, the woman’s son falls ill and dies.  Elijah is rebuked by the widow, and then brings the child back to life.

It is a famous miracle story that is cited in rabbinic literature and beyond – one of those formative myths that must have been especially powerful in early Judaism.  The jar of oil bit is possibly/probably the source text for the rabbis when they created the Chanukah miracle.
And the story is formative in early Christianity, too.  According to the Book of Luke, it is cited as proof by Jesus that – as he would have put it “ein navi b’iro” – no prophet is accepted in his or her home town – the story takes place outside of Israel.

One of the features of the story that is sometimes overlooked is how Elijah revives the child.  While he calls for divine help, he stretches out over him – not once, or twice but three times.  Three is significant.  Somehow the three-ness has some special power.

And this is not the only powerful three we find in biblical literature.  Daniel, in rebellion against the laws of the land, stands in his window and prays towards Jerusalem three times each day.  It is for this that he will find himself thrown into a Lion’s Den.
David on meeting Jonathan, bows down before him three times, with his face to the ground.
Balaam beats his donkey three times; Jonah spends three days and nights in the belly of the fish; The Israelites go three days after the Exodus before they start complaining, and three days without water in the Desert of Shur.
Architecturally, Solomon’s Temple is designed with windows placed in sets of three; Calendrically we have three pilgrim festivals, Pesach Shavuot and Sukkot;
The Torah was given in the third month of the Biblical year, to a three-part people (classically, Israel is made up of Cohanim, Levites, and Israelites), through a number three child (Moses, who was the third child in his family (after Miriam and Aaron).
And, of course, there are three Patriarchs – Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and three bits of the bible – Torah, Neviim and Ketuvim.

Beyond the bible, three is a familiar motif in rabbinic literature.  Famously in Pirkei Avot, the world stands on three things: on Torah, Avodah and G’milut Chasidim – on Torah, Worship and acts of Lovingkindness.  And the world endures on three things – justice, truth and peace; Akavia ben Mahalalel says: Reflect upon three things and you will not come to the hands of transgression.

Three is often found within our literature as a literary form, too. Many early stories have a threefold structure.  And talking of threefold structures – we also have “brachah ha-m’shuleshet ba-Torah”: the threefold benediction of Torah.

And not only in Judaism, of course.  Other religions also have things in three.  The three goods of Zoroastrianism, for example, Humata, Hukhta, Huvarshta: Good Thoughts, Good Words, Good Deeds.  I know that this is the one that we all would think of first!
And so, too, in popular culture: genies always give three wishes.  All in all, as De La Soul put it, three is the magic number.

But, why?
What is going on here?
Why so many threes?  Why should the world stand or endure on three things rather than two or four or some other number?
Why is three a powerful number – and what might this tell us about our ideals for ourselves and the world?

As with many symbolically powerful numbers (seven is another one, so is ten) what’s underlying this seems to be a sense of, a human need for, completeness, wholeness.  Three speaks about a fullness of life, a fullness of experience – the presence of a beginning, a middle and an end.

To do something three times, for good or for ill, be you Elijah, or David or Balaam, is to establish a pattern.  It suggests a definiteness: that something is being done purposefully.  Hence, in Jewish law there is something known as a chazakah – a halachic status of permanence that is established when an event repeats itself three times, or, more often, over a three year period.

To be in a three is also about stability.  “It takes three legs to make a tripod, or to make a table stand” as the Schoolhouse Rock song (the song that De La Soul sampled) goes.  Three is necessary for stability – literally, on three things the world is capable of standing.  Three represents being within community, having the supportive relationships of others.
And it represents a strength of togetherness.  As the book of Ecclesiastes puts it, a threefold cord is not easily broken.

Three is not, then, merely a coincidence, but a powerful statement of human nature.  The Maharal of Prague, in his commentary on Pirkei Avot, suggests that three is significant because to be human is to be in three complementary relationships.  As human beings we are in relationship with God, with one another, and with ourselves.
Threeness says that we live in a world where we interact with others.

And so, on this Shabbat of a triple Bar Mitzvah, I turn to our three.
We wish you lives of wholeness, of completeness.  Lives in which you have a fullness of relationship and experience.  And we wish you the strength of a threefold cord
And the stability that comes from being in relation not only as a three, but as part of a community of three thousand – with each other, with others around you, with community, like a tripod, able to stand.

Like the threes in our tradition, may yours, too, bring a special quality, and a special power, into your, and our lives.