Seventy Souls

June 24, 2009

6 min read


Vayigash (Genesis 44:18-47:27 )

How many different ways of looking at the same verse in the Torah do you suppose there are? Five? Ten? Fifteen?

The mystical tradition says there are 70 different ways of looking at any verse, or idea expressed in the Torah. Granted, with some verses this is a bit hard to imagine, but many verses certainly have scores of commentaries written about them.

If, on the other hand, you take into account the subtle differences in the way each person reads the same idea, you could have hundreds, thousands, or millions of ways of understanding the same thing.

What the tradition seems to be implying is that there are 70 different types of "minds" that God created, 70 different ways of humanity looking at everything.

An important lesson here is to recognize that there are different people and different viewpoints in the world, and one individual's way of looking at life is not the only way. Just like the facets of a diamond can be viewed from different angles, and each facet doesn't negate the other.

Jewish tradition also mentions that there are 70 different peoples of the world, as if from the time of the Tower of Babel until now 70 different groups of people exist in the world at all times. Of course, nations come and go, and peoples change all over the globe. But the idea of 70 nations emphasizes that there are many ways to look at things by people all over the world. (In Genesis ch. 10, the number of descendants of Noah is 70.)

Incidentally, since these 70 nations of the world don't include the nation of Israel, it seems that when the number 70 is used in a symbolic sense, there is always one "extra." For that reason, the number 70, when it appears symbolically in various places in the Torah, is really 71.

Another idea: There is a custom not to directly count individuals. Why is counting problematic? Because the oneness of God was disturbed, so to speak, by the creation of an illusion of something else. By creating our world, God also put His essence into hiding. That's why the whole purpose of creation is for the created being – us -- to come back to the Oneness. Therefore the very nature of counting is emphasizing the division and separation inherent in the universe that we are trying to rectify.

Seventy Sages

An example of this is the Great Sanhedrin, the governing body of sages that was established at the time of Moses. It was made up of 70 sages that Moses had chosen and ordained, who provided guidance and leadership to the nation. One biblical commentary ties these themes together:

God's Heavenly tribunal is comprised of the 70 guardian angels of the 70 nations, presided over, as it were, by God Himself. Modeled after the Heavenly court, the Sanhedrin included 70 judges, presided over by Moses, and later by his successors as president (Nasi). In general, the number 70 represents all the different aspects of human mentality, just as the entire human race is composed of the 70 primary nations enumerated in Genesis 10. Thus, a body of 70 sages can be expected to consider all possibilities and render just decisions.

A sagely lesson to be learned:

Not only in relationships do we want to be able to look at things from other angles, but in positions of leadership and guidance this position is crucial. If you are a parent, teacher, counselor, manager, etc., you are in a position of leadership. Decisions you make that affect others require the ability to understand another's perspective.

Jacob's Seventy

When Jacob and his descendants go down to Egypt, they are counted. If you follow the numbers, they add up to 69. But the text says that Jacob's entourage was a group of 70. There seems to be an accounting problem. Who is the seventieth person?

Some say it was Jacob. Others say a woman named Yocheved (Moses' future mother) was born just as they were entering Egypt. Others say the seventieth is the Divine Presence. Still others suggest that the Torah was merely rounding the number off.

Up until now in the biblical narrative, the people of the world have always been dividing. In each generation there are factors that cause separation: the Tower of Babel, fights between Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau. Now for the first time there is a unit, a nation based not so much on genetics or location, but more on a philosophy of life, a religion of ethical monotheism that an entire family and its descendants have lived and taught.

At this point, the Jewish nation is going to become physically absorbed into Egypt. And strikingly, the Jewish nation will leave the country of Egypt intact, as a family and unified. (Unfortunately, the Jewish nation will continue this process in almost every country in the world throughout history.)

In 1989, when the Dalai Lama found himself at the head of a nation without a country, he turned to the Jews to ask for advice. How do we stay dedicated to our way of life outside of our land of origin? How do we survive in exile?

This biblical passage may be used to answer such a question. Unity. Not unity as clones, but unity as a group that understands that while they have different ways of looking at the same thing, at the same time, they have deeply shared goals and values.

One of the struggles we all have is the tug of war between being an individual and being part of a society. We must decide what aspects of life are communal, and what are personal. These decisions often affect the essential strength of the community we live in.

Spiritual Exercise

Give a call this week to someone in your "community" (whatever that means to you) who you wouldn't normally go out of your way to contact, just to see how they are doing, what's new with them, and to share good wishes.

Next Steps