Over a millennium ago, the Talmud records a miracle of reverse aging. Rabbi Elazar ben Azariyah, ticketed for the top spot atop the Sanhedrin, looked too young for the job. Only eighteen, his cheeks were too smooth and is brow not lined enough for the decisions of weight that were sure to come before the court. So one day he looked in the mirror, and the mirror showed him a man of seventy years, rich with wisdom and experience. Nothing had changed, but it made all the difference in the world. Seventy meant that you had been in the world long enough to know something of how it worked.
As Shmuel Rosner points out, Israel’s 70th birthday feels different because of the resonance of seventy in the Jewish imagination. Seventy souls went down with Jacob to Egypt, jogging Jewish history at its inception. Jewish tradition teaches that there are both seventy faces to the Torah and seventy nations of the world. The number stands for a kind of universality, a quantum of pluralism of both peoples and interpretive angles. At the same time, it serves as shorthand for the idea of an extended family, those seventy grains of sand and clumps of stardust who would come to populate beaches and skies.
Perhaps the most salient of all these seventies, however, is the period spent in Babylon, after the destruction of the first Temple and the securing of permission to return to Zion from the Persian King Cyrus. This was a time of depopulation and deportation, a kingdom in exile and a sovereignty hollowed out. It gave us Psalm 137, an extraordinary account of harps hanging from trees and muffled weeping and the acoustics of beloved songs echoing in strange lands. The psalms pathos is generated by the tension between performance and authenticity. How do you smile through tears, or sing hymns when you feel dirges? It conjures up the present Babylon and the missed Jerusalem, and wafts between them a bridge of song that refuses to be built; the right arms are liable to disappear in the abracadabra of forgetting.
These seventy years, mercifully short compared to the horrors and endlessness of the years that were to come, provide a blueprint to the Jewish construction of exile. The harps hanging in the trees have bloomed again, in the seventy years of the Modern State of Israel. Each of those years of pain and loss have come back to us as years of pain and building. The songs of Zion are no longer a cruel pantomime to be performed on demand; they hum in the hills and the coffee shops and lap against sandy beaches. Seventy years of exile and seventy years of redemption, and a young man looking into the mirror, hoping to see someone else, but glimpsing only his old-new face, and hoping that its lines were owed only to laughter, but knowing there was a debt to pain, too. And that knowledge, and its tincture of joy, was all the wisdom he would ever need.