Parshas Noach (5772)
Many numbers have special symbolism in Judaism – we have the 4 Cups of Wine, the 5 Books of Moses, the 12 Tribes of Israel, the 613 Commandments, etc. – but one number which you may not have thought to be so special - and which is first alluded to in this week’s Torah portion - is the number 70.
The Midrash Alpha Beisa tells us all about this very significant number:
“G-d, Who has seventy Names, gave the Torah, which has seventy names, to Israel, which has seventy names (the seventy names of G-d and Israel are enumerated by Baal HaTurim in his commentary to Numbers 11:16), and which originated from seventy people who went down to Egypt with Jacob (listed in Genesis 46:8-27), and was chosen from among seventy nations (listed in this week’s Torah portion, Genesis chapter 10), to celebrate seventy holy days in the year (52 Sabbaths and 18 festivals, including the Intermediate Days of Passover and Succos). The Torah was transmitted to seventy elders (Midrash Yelamdeinu), and safeguarded by the Sanhedrin of seventy Sages (Numbers 11:16) … There are seventy facets to the Torah (Zohar, Genesis 36), which was translated into seventy languages to make it understandable to the seventy nations (Sotah 32a), and was engraved on seventy stones after Israel crossed the Jordan (Deuteronomy 27:8) on their way to the Holy Land. In the Holy City of Jerusalem, which has seventy names, they built the Temple, which has seventy pillars. There, on Succos, seventy sacrifices were offered (Numbers 29:13-34) for the sake of the seventy nations of the world who have seventy representatives among the heavenly angels.”
Mahara”l of Prague writes that the number seven represents the entirety of this natural world, which was created in seven days (six days of creation, completed on the Sabbath) and which will last for seven thousand years (six thousand years, plus a thousand-year Sabbath - see Talmud Sanhedrin 97a). And any number times ten represents its expanded full potential – so that seventy of something represents all the potential facets of that thing in the natural world.
Mahara”l writes further that the number seventy is critical in the turning points of history: After the Flood, seventy nations descended from Noach; seventy languages emerged at the building of the Tower of Babel; the Jewish nation began with the seventy people who came with Jacob to Egypt; and in the World to Come, the seventy prime nations will recognize G-d as the One and Only Ruler of the world.
Rabbi Avraham Chaim Feuer, in his amazing commentary to Tehillim (published by Artscroll), quotes Rabbi David Feinstein who explains the significance of the many parallels of the number 70 – seventy nations, seventy members of Jacob’s family, seventy root languages, seventy facets to the Torah, etc. – as follows:
Each of the 70 nations represented a unique characteristic, as the Sages say, one excelled in warfare, another in licentiousness, a third in beauty, and so on. All of these national virtues and strains of character are present in Israel as well, for each person has gifts to develop and temptations to overcome. G-d wants all nations to rise to their greatest spiritual potential. These variations were present in the individual members of Jacob’s family. And the seventy languages used by Moses parallel the seventy facets of Torah; each ‘speaks’ to one of the seventy characteristics with which G-d has populated the world. Israel, as the spiritual model and leader of the world, was to demonstrate within itself that eminence is within reach of every nation; that every type of person can live an elevated life, guided by the Torah. Therefore, a significant portion of Jewish life revolves around the number seventy to symbolize that every national trait can be harnessed for holy purposes.
I will conclude with one more parallel of the number seventy, which deals with the final “turning point” in history:
Psalm 20, which begins with the words “Lamnatzei’ach Mizmor L’Dovid – For the Conductor, a psalm of David …”, is recited daily towards the end of the Shacharis prayer service. In this psalm, we beseech G-d that He answer us when we are in great pain and distress. The Vilna Gaon in Yahel Ohr (2:119:2) notes that there are seventy words in this Psalm, corresponding to the seventy years of travails and suffering – referred to in the classic texts as the “birth pangs of Messiah” - that the Jewish people will have to experience before the Messiah comes and redeems us.
May we all merit to see the Messianic Era when all the seventy nations of the world will unite as one with the Jewish people – under one Torah and One G-d. Amen.