As our ancestors journeyed across the desert, they were arrayed around the Tabernacle in four equal groups, each group composed of three tribes. What is the significance of there being groups of three, a prominent number in our history and tradition?

Some examples: There were three patriarchs. The Torah is sub-divided into three parts—Pentateuch, Prophets and Scriptures. Jews pray three times a day. Many stanzas in our prayers are repeated three times. Abraham was visited by three angels following his circumcision at the age of 99. The Torah was given in the third month of the Jewish calendar by Moses, the third child of his parents.

One and Two

One connotes absolute singularity. G‑d is one. There is no room for other gods; there can be only one.

What is the significance of the number three, a prominent number in our history and tradition? Two introduces distinction. You can only have two when one is different from the other. Differences introduce discord, which in turn gives rise to conflict. Two is the number of opposites.

Two is also the number of finitude. While one is global—occupying all space because there is no other whose space the one must vacate—two is by definition finite. There is a point at which one ends and the other begins.

In this sense, one represents G‑d, and two represents all else, i.e., creation. Indeed, our sages taught that on the first day of creation G‑d was alone in His world. On the second day, when the firmament was created to separate the upper waters from the lower, discord was introduced.1

The Third

Three introduces a new element: the mediator that dissolves the conflict and creates harmony. With the introduction of the third element, what was formerly perceived as conflict emerges as harmonious.

On the third day, G‑d pooled the lower waters and dry land appeared—separating water from dry land. This act demonstrated that separation is not always negative. Differences can also be catalysts for improvement. In this case, the separation of waters made dry land possible—a result that could not be achieved had land and water remained as they were.

Day two introduced differences, and on the surface appears to conflict with the uniformity of day one; but day three demonstrated that it is sometimes through separation and distinction that the goals of unity are furthered. Three is thus the number of resolution and reconciliation.

The Mediator

Let us take this to the next level. One represents G‑d. Two represents conflict—or creation itself. Whereas G‑d was the only existence before creation, it now appears that He must share space with the universe that He created, which, if true, would detract from His singularity. He would no longer be completely alone, no longer the only play in town. There is now a universe to reckon with.

What resolves the “conflict” of creation? The Torah. The Torah demonstrates that the world G‑d created is not separate from its Creator. All that G‑d created, He created for His glory, to serve Him.2 The universe was not intended to be apart from G‑d; it was intended to serve G‑d’s purpose as outlined in the Torah, and it is thus an extension of Him. Once we note that the Torah plays the role of mediator, we are not surprised to learn that the Torah was given in the third month.

Resolving Internal Conflict

We live in a convoluted world dominated by the number two, by the elements that draw us away from that which is healthy... The resolution between a singular G‑d and a multifaceted creation applies on the personal, individual level as well as on the macro level.

Among G‑d’s creations, some are permitted to us and some are not, some are healthy for us and some are not. In a perfect world, in a world dominated by the number one, we would partake only of those things that are permitted by G‑d, and healthy for the human body.

However, we live in a convoluted world dominated by the number two, by the elements that draw us away from that which is healthy, G‑dly and right. Place a pacifier and a flame before an infant, and the child will reach for the fire. Place a carrot and a candy before a toddler, and the child will reach for the candy. Place a book and a Game Boy before a teen, and the kid will opt for the Game Boy. This does not change when we mature. Place a treadmill and a TV before an adult, and watch the grownup reach for the remote.

This is the one versus two, or the singularity versus pluralism, dilemma. In a perfect world, only permissible and healthy things exist. In an imperfect world, temptation also exists. Are the two in conflict?

Our ancestors were arrayed in groups of three, and our tradition centers so prominently around the number three to remind us that this internal conflict can be resolved. G‑d did not create the holy and unholy, the healthy and unhealthy, the permissible and forbidden so that they would conflict, but so that they would complement each other.

His purpose in creating the forbidden, un-G‑dly and unhealthy was to give us the possibility to find resolution, not in indulgence, but in our ability to turn down an option. If only permissible and holy things existed, our worship would not be of our own volition; what choice would we have? Now that a dizzying array of choices exists, and what’s more, the unhealthy and the forbidden is more appetizing than the healthy and permitted, we truly have the choice to do what is right.

This is the power of three. It makes the Torah relevant on a personal level and brings the message of the Jewish holiday of Shavuot to life.