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Parshas Devarim / Tisha B'Av: Seventy Explanations: Finding God in Pain

Updated: Jan 12, 2021

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בְּעֵ֥בֶר הַיַּרְדֵּ֖ן בְּאֶ֣רֶץ מוֹאָ֑ב הוֹאִ֣יל משֶׁ֔ה בֵּאֵ֛ר אֶת־הַתּוֹרָ֥ה הַזֹּ֖את לֵאמֹֽר:

"On that side of the Jordan, in the land of Moab, Moses commenced [and] explained this Law, saying." (Devarim 1:5)

As we consider this passuk we must ask ourselves, what exactly did Moshe explain? What is it about this law that it required a greater explanation than any other law?

Rashi cites the Medrash (which brings the teaching of Rabbi Tanchuma) which explains that Moshe explained the Torah in all seventy languages.

Similarly, in Parshas Ki Tavo, as Klal Yisrael is preparing to cross the Jordan River into Eretz Yisrael, Moshe instructs the people that upon arriving in Eretz Yisrael they are to erect large stones and inscribe upon them the words of the Torah. The stones were to be coated in plaster so as to preserve the writing. וְכָתַבְתָּ֣ עַל־הָֽאֲבָנִ֗ים אֶת־כָּל־דִּבְרֵ֛י הַתּוֹרָ֥ה הַזֹּ֖את בַּאֵ֥ר הֵיטֵֽב: "You shall write upon the stones all the words of this Torah, very clearly." Again we find this language of בַּאֵ֥ר. What did Moshe mean when he told them to write the words of the Torah "very clearly?" Was he instructing them to ensure that the engravings were legible? Rashi brings the Gemara in Sotah (32a) that Moshe was instructing them to translate the Torah into seventy languages.

The Sifsei Chachamim sees a reference to the idea of translating the Torah into seventy languages in the very word הֵיטֵֽב. Gematria is not simply cute number tricks. The numerology of a word gives us insight into its inner meaning. Various forms of Gematria yield different insights. The Gematria that the Sifsei Chachamim uses in this case is a cumulative one where each letter is then added to the total value of the letters preceding it. Thus the word הֵיטֵֽב amounts to seventy (5+15+24+26=70) a clear reference to the translation of the Torah into seventy languages.

Our question is, what was the lesson Moshe was teaching Klal Yisrael?

What is the value in translating the Torah?

One may have perhaps thought that there would be value in keeping the Torah in its original lashon hakodesh and yet we see that Moshe finds it important not once but twice to insist on translating the Torah.

The Number Seventy

שְׁמַ֖ע יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל יְהֹוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֵ֖ינוּ יְהֹוָ֥ה | אֶחָֽד:

Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God; the Lord is one. (Devarim 6:4)

The letter ayin in the word Shema is written in large in the Torah. The Baal HaTurim explains that the עי''ן דשמע גדולה שע' שמות יש לישראל ונתן להם תורה שיש לה ע' שמות ונדרשת בע' פנים להבדיל בין ע' עכו''ם, the ayin of the word shema is enlarged because the Nation of Israel has seventy names and they were given a Torah that has seventy names and is elucidated in seventy various ways to separate them from the seventy nations of the world.

The Gemara in Shabbos 88b teaches:

אמר רבי יוחנן מאי דכתיב ה׳ יתן אמר המבשרות צבא רב כל דיבור ודיבור שיצא מפי הגבורה נחלק לשבעים לשונות תני דבי רבי ישמעאל וכפטיש יפצץ סלע מה פטיש זה נחלק לכמה ניצוצות אף כל דיבור ודיבור שיצא מפי הקדוש ברוך הוא נחלק לשבעים לשונות

With regard to the revelation at Sinai, Rabbi Yochanan said: What is the meaning of that which is written: “The Lord gives the word; the women that proclaim the tidings are a great host” (Psalms 68:12 )? It means that each and every utterance that emerged from the mouth of the Almighty divided into seventy languages, a great host. And, similarly, the school of Rabbi Yishmael taught with regard to the verse: “Behold, is My word not like fire, declares the Lord, and like a hammer that shatters a rock?” (Jeremiah 23:29). Just as this hammer breaks a stone into several fragments, so too, each and every utterance that emerged from the mouth of the Holy One, Blessed be He, divided into seventy languages.

So far we have seen that Klal Yisrael has seventy names. The Torah has seventy names. Hashem Himself gave over the Torah in seventy languages. It can be interpreted in seventy fashions. It separates us from the seventy nations of the world. But we have barely scratched the surface of the significance of the number seventy.

Noach has seventy descendants which are the archetypes of the seventy nation of the world. The phrase Vayidaber Adonai el Moshe leimor, occurs seventy times in the Torah. The Tikkunei Zohar gives seventy different explanations of the word Bereishis. There were seventy elders of the Jewish nation and seventy members of the Sanhedrin. David HaMelech writes in Tehillim (90:10) that the average lifespan is seventy years (" יְמֵ֚י שְׁנוֹתֵ֨ינוּ | בָּהֶ֨ם שִׁבְעִ֪ים שָׁנָ֡ה "). There were seventy years of exile in Bavel between the first and second Temple. There are seventy words in kiddush. The Torah can be understood on four different levels, pshat (simple interpretation), remez (hint and allusions), drush ( expositions upon the deeper meaning) and sod (the secret meaning of the passuk). The Gematria of the word sod, the deepest, most secret meaning of the Torah, is seventy.

The Gemara in Eruvin (65a) teaches:

אמר רבי חייא כל המתיישב ביינו יש בו דעת שבעים זקנים יין ניתן בשבעים אותיות וסוד ניתן בשבעים אותיות נכנס יין יצא סוד

Rabbi Chiya said: Anyone who remains clear of mind after drinking wine, and does not become intoxicated, has an element of the mind-set of seventy Elders. The allusion is: Wine [yayin spelled yod, yod, nun] was given in seventy letters, as the numerological value of the letters comprising the word is seventy, as yod equals ten and nun equals fifty. Similarly, the word secret [sod spelled samekh, vav, dalet] was given in seventy letters, as samekh equals sixty, vav equals six, and dalet equals four. When wine enters the body, a secret emerges. Whoever does not reveal secrets when he drinks is clearly blessed with a firm mind, like that of seventy Elders.

The Gemara establishes a connection between wine, secrets and the seventy elders but what is the meaning of this connection?

Furthermore, what is the significance of the number seventy that we encounter it so often in Judaism?

Finding God In A Fragmented World: The One Within The Seventy

The Jewish people came down to Egypt as a family of seventy people. "All the offspring of Jacob, seventy soul." The Torah does not say that seventy souls (plural) came down to Egypt but seventy soul (singular). What is the message the Torah is communicating to us?

There are two ways of viewing our world, differentiated and unified. In Judaism both are true.

The physical reality of the world appears to be fragmented. Objects are distinct from each other.

On a spiritual level all is one. One God permeates our entire world. Soft core monotheists believe in one God; hard core monotheists believe in oneness.

In Judaism we seek to discover the unity behind the differentiation. We don't deny the fragmentation of the world, we only seek to uncover its inner unity.

Far from denying the differentiated nature of reality, Judaism embraces it. There is great dignity in difference. We all think in unique ways. Have unique perspectives. Lead unique lives. However, unity can be perverted to remove the value of the individual. In the story of the Tower of Bavel, the Torah says that “The entire earth had one language and a common speech.” This however seems to contradict a previous passuk (Bereishis 10:5) that states "From these, the islands of the nations separated in their lands, each one to his language, according to their families, in their nations." So which passuk is correct? How can the Torah state that at the time of Bavel the entire world spoke one language when immediately following the story of the flood the Torah tells us that they had already developed unique languages? (In fact the Talmud Yerushalmi records a dispute as to when exactly the world developed unique languages with one side maintaining that it occurred even before the flood.)

Perhaps we can suggest that both are true. The world spoke many languages but the mission of Bavel mandated that we all speak the same language. Speaking one language represents the suppression of individuality. This then is the perversion of unity. True unity finds harmony in opposites. The perverse version of unity cannot tolerate difference. We must all speak the same language regardless of who we are. Those that built the Tower of Bavel did so because they were fighting God. A Godless world demands conformity. A Godly world recognizes that each of us represent various pieces of a singular puzzle. Like the many paintings of a master artist, each is a unique expression of the artist and yet all are connected to the artist themselves. When Hashem babbled (the origin of the word Babylon) their language he was restoring the world to the way it had previously been with each nation speaking their own unique language. By reinstating difference God once again gave us the opportunity to create true harmony.

Mitzrayim and Bavel share a common goal, the defeat of Godly difference to achieve a false (perhaps idolatrous) unity. The language of the pesukim in the stories of Bavel and Mitzrayim are strikingly similar.

Regarding Migdal Bavel the Torah writes, וַיֹּֽאמְר֞וּ הָ֣בָה | נִבְנֶה־לָּ֣נוּ עִ֗יר וּמִגְדָּל֙ וְרֹאשׁ֣וֹ בַשָּׁמַ֔יִם וְנַֽעֲשֶׂה־לָּ֖נוּ שֵׁ֑ם פֶּן־נָפ֖וּץ עַל־פְּנֵ֥י כָל־הָאָֽרֶץ: "And they said, "Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make ourselves a name, lest we be scattered upon the face of the entire earth."

Regarding Mitzrayim the Torah uses the same exact language of הָ֣בָה and פֶּן (Come and lest) as Pharaoh says, הָ֥בָה נִתְחַכְּמָ֖ה ל֑וֹ פֶּן־יִרְבֶּ֗ה וְהָיָ֞ה כִּֽי־תִקְרֶ֤אנָה מִלְחָמָה֙ וְנוֹסַ֤ף גַּם־הוּא֙ עַל־שׂ֣נְאֵ֔ינוּ וְנִלְחַם־בָּ֖נוּ וְעָלָ֥ה מִן־הָאָֽרֶץ: "Come, let us deal shrewdly with them, lest they increase, and a war befall us, and they join our enemies and wage war against us and depart from the land."

With this in mind we can now return to our question regrading the singular use of the word soul, the soul cannot truly be plural. While we all have unique souls we are all essentially united. Like the many rays that emanate from the sun, we all shine our own unique lights but are still intrinsically connected back to the same sun. On our way down to Mitzrayim, the place (like Bavel) that represents the greatest fragmentation, the Torah testifies to our commitment to oneness and unity. Precisely in Mitzrayim, God reveals the oneness that lies behind all of creation.

Seventy is the number that epitomizes disunity and at the same time represents the capacity for the ultimate unity. Most numbers in Judaism represent one concept. It is appropriate that the number representing unity contains multiple concepts that seem to contradict each other.

Seventy represents both differentiation and oneness. The ayin and the aleph, the seventy and the one, sound similar though not exactly. While the aleph (one) does not have a tangible sound (it is hidden in the word, a secret if you will), the ayin (seventy) has a deep guttural sound (as the Teimanim appropriately pronounce it). The sound of the aleph is hidden in the ayin. The oneness, the unity, is hidden inside the fragmentation (the seventy) of the world.

The Kabbalists points out that it is therefore not surprising that wherever we find the concept of seventy in the Torah it is generally surrounding the one. Seventy members of Yaakov's family surround Yaakov (the one) as they descend towards Mitzrayim. Our Sages (Medrash Tanchuma to Toldos 5, Esther Rabbah 10:11) liken the existence of the Jewish people in times of exile to a “solitary sheep that finds itself surrounded by seventy wolves.” On Shemini Atzeres, one ox, representing Klal Yisrael, was sacrificed after the seventy korbanos (representing the Nations of the World) that were brought over Succos. Moshe is surrounded by the seventy elders. The seventy sages of the Sanhedrin surround the מופלא, the prince. מופלא comes from the word פלא (wonder) which is the inverted spelling of the letter אלף.

With this in mind we can now understand the above statement of Rabbi Chiyah who said, "Anyone who remains clear of mind after drinking wine, and does not become intoxicated, has an element of the mind-set of seventy Elders." The seventy elders understood the unity in our fragmented world. This was their mindset. Where others saw chaos they saw harmony. This is the sod (70) of creation. When we drink יין appropriately the secret of the seventy emerges. Underneath everything there is a thread that unites us all.

And so the Torah's phrase "seventy soul" is absolutely perfect. One unified soul, hidden and surrounded by the fragmented reality of the seventy.

Seventy Languages of the Torah

Why was Moshe insistent that the Torah be translated into seventy languages?

There are many answers to this question but let us examine the answer of the Ksav Sofer. The Ksav Sofer explains that people were suggesting that the Torah is only for when we are among ourselves, in the desert, or in Eretz Yisrael. Before they entered Eretz Yisrael the Torah was translated into all seventy languages, teaching Am Yisrael that no matter where we go or what language we speak, the eternal Torah continues to be relevant.

To put it differently, when we are alone with God in the desert or in our own singular land, we experience the harmony of creation. In exile we experience the world in its fragmented state. How can a Jew fulfill the word of God in such a state? This is the implied question that Moshe Rabbeinu is addressing. And it address this question, a teaching would not be sufficient. It required an explanation (בֵּאֵ֛ר אֶת־הַתּוֹרָ֥ה הַזֹּ֖את). What is the difference between the two? A teaching states the clear facts. An explanation sees beyond the facts and explains their inner meaning. Moshe Rabbeinu in his very answer is role modeling for us how we remain connected when we feel so distant. Moshe is explaining to us that to survive in exile, to remain connected to our holy Torah, we must dig deeper. If we choose to lead a life where we only look at the surface we will live in a fragmented reality. In such a state we will not be able to maintain our connection to Torah. However, a Jew is capable of touching the unity that lies beneath the chaos. We can connect to Him in every situation we encounter. We can hear the secret of the אלף hidden within the עין. In this fashion, we are always connected to the Torah. Even when we find ourselves dispersed among the seventy nations of the world we remain essentially connected.

Earlier we quoted the Medrash that taught that Moshe translated the Torah into seventy languages. This teaching was brought in the name of Rabbi Tanchuma. What is the connection between Rabbi Tanchuma and this particular lesson? The word Tanchum means to comfort. Moshe Rabbeinu was addressing the fear that accompanies galus. We will be surrounded by seventy wolves. How will we survive this long and dark exile? Rabbi Tanchuma provides the necessary comfort. No matter how dispersed we are, no matter how fragmented life appears, we can always find the oneness in the chaos and cleave to Hashem's Torah.

The Souls of Seventy

There is one last seventy that we have yet to explore. Chazal teach us that Adam looked into the future and saw a soul that was only meant to have life but for a few hours. Recognizing the incredible nature of this soul, Adam donated seventy years of his life to that soul so that it could illuminate the world (Adam who was meant to live 1000 years only lived until 930). That soul was Dovid HaMelech who lived for seventy years. The name אדם is an acronym that spells out Adam, Dovid and Mashiach.

Dovid's life was far from simple. From an early age he was sent out to tend the sheep. Dovid was forced to eat at a separate table because of his family's shame regarding his questionable lineage. After marrying King Shaul's daughter Michal, he spent years being chased by his father-law who several times attempted to kill Dovid out of jealousy. He lost a baby at birth, one of his son's raped his daughter, and another son attempted to kill him and oust him from his throne. Think of the pain he was experiencing when he wrote the words (Tehillim 130), "From the depths I call out to you O Lord."

But let us turn to another to another chapter in Tehillim for a moment, chapter 20. It begins "May the Lord answer ( יַֽעַנְךָ֣ ) you on a day of distress ( צָרָ֑ה ); may the name of the God of Jacob fortify you." and it ends "O Lord, save [us]; may the King answer ( יַֽעֲנֵ֥נוּ ) us on the day we call." The word answer, יַֽעַנְךָ֣ and יַֽעֲנֵ֥נוּ, are both identified by their primary letter, the ע (seventy). It is not accidental that Chapter 20 of Tehillim contains seventy words.

The Kabbalists teach that this corresponds to the seventy cries of the deer during labor. The birth pangs of the deer are the most painful of any in the animal kingdom because she has a very narrow womb. In Lashon HaKodesh we gain insights into the nature of things by the words they are identified by. The word narrow in Lashon HaKodesh is צר while the word for distress is צער. It is through the narrowness and distress of life that the ע of צער is released. Pain forces us to see the world differently (עין means eyesight). In confronting the true nature of reality we uncover its oneness. We discover the aleph that is hidden within the guttural sounds of the ayin. The comfort of Rabbi Tanchuma is not merely that we can find oneness in the chaos of life but that the chaos is purposefully designed. It is for this reason that there are seventy cries during the birth pangs of Mashiach.

Adam saw in himself the capacity to uncover the oneness that exists in creation. In the soul of Dovid HaMelech he saw the same talent and sacrificed seventy years of his life so that Dovid HaMelech could continue that mission. As David HaMelech wrote in Tehillim (118) מִן־הַ֖מֵּצַֽר קָרָ֣אתִי יָּ֑הּ עָ֜נָ֗נִי בַּמֶּרְחָ֣ב יָֽהּ, From the narrowness (הַ֖מֵּצַֽר) I called God; God answered (עָ֜נָ֗נִי ) me with a vast expanse. Ultimately it is Mashiach that will finish the job and usher in the era of Olam Haba.

On some year Tisha B'Av falls out on Shabbos. While we do not show any public displays of mourning on Shabbos (there is no special Seuda Hamafsekes before the fast), we are still forbidden from learning Torah after midday on Shabbos afternoon (aside for those sections of Torah which are permitted to be studied on Tisha B’Av). Unless Mikvah night falls out on Friday night, marital relations are prohibited. So we find ourselves in a strange situation. It is Tisha B'Av but not exactly. We eat our regular Shabbos seudas and we delay the fast until Sunday. But in the end we must ask the question, is it Tisha B'Av or Shabbos? I would like to suggest that this type of Tisha B'Av presents us with a unique opportunity. We confront the pain of Tisha B'Av and the oneness of Shabbos at the very same moment. We celebrate Shabbos and mourn Tisha B'Av at the same time. A Jew is obligated to live in two dimensions at once. It is within the pain of the destruction of the Beis HaMikdash that we will find God and rebuild our home. Those that mourn the tragedy of Yerushalayim will merit to see it restored to its state of glory. The simcha of Shabbos is a taste of the simcha we will experience in Olam Haba. On Shabbos/Tisha B'Av may we merit to greet Mashiach and finally uncover what Rav Shlomo Freifeld zt"l called "the symmetry of creation."

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