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D’var Torah: Parashat Beha’alotcha

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In his D’var Torah for this week, the Chief Rabbi expounds on the remarkable relevance of the number 70 to Jewish life. The full transcript appears below. 

There is a well known Mishna in Masechet Brachot in which Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah declares Hareh ani k’ven shivim shanah – It is as if I am 70 years old. The historical context of this was a time when Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah, at the age of 18, was appointed to be the Nasi, the head of our people.

He wanted to reassure the nation, to let them know, he had the maturity, the learning and the bearing, to be a good leader. But why did he say ‘it is as if I am 70 years old?’ Why not 60? 75? 85? Why dafka, ’70’?

‘He wanted to reassure the nation…[that] he had the maturity, the learning, the bearing’

I believe we can derive an answer from the Midrash Zuta, which provides 10 examples of the significance of the number 70 in our tradition. The first comes from this week’s parasha of Beha’alotcha. Hashem instructed Moshe to appoint 70 elders to become prophets just like him. Therefore, the number 70 represents the word of Hashem.

The Midrash goes on to tell us that when Ya’akov came down with his family to Egypt, they were shivim nefesh, 70 people altogether, representing the entire Jewish nation. And then there are shiv’im panim laTorah – seventy angles, seventy levels of depth of the Torah.

G-d has seventy names. The city of Jerusalem has seventy names. After the destruction of the Tower of Babel, there were 70 languages on earth. From the days of Noah onwards, there were 70 nations. And that’s why during the festival of Sukkot, in Temple times, we brought altogether 70 cows as offerings representing all the nations on earth.

G-d has seventy names. The city of Jerusalem has seventy names.

The Temple of Solomon was built on 70 pillars and altogether there are 70 holy days every year – 52 Shabbatot, the 7 days of Pesach, the 7 days of Sukkot, 1 day of Shmini Atzeret, 2 days of Rosh Hashanah, 1 day Yom Kippur – of course this is according to the festivals in Israel – and that brings us to the number 70.

70 therefore represents completion, wholeness, the real thing. 70 is a symbol of everything which is sacred and dear to us in our lives.

‘I am compete, I am whole, I am the real thing’

70 represents completion, wholeness, and that’s what Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah wanted to convey to the people. I am compete, I am whole, I am the real thing, it’s as if I am 70 years old.

And the message for us is, regardless of our age, similarly, like Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah, we should always strive to to become the real thing.