Shia Altman
Shia Altman

Seventy souls and seventy years – An Eikev Dvar Torah

There are seven weeks between Tisha B’Av, the Fast Day of the Ninth of Av, when both Jewish Temples were destroyed and other calamities occurred to the Jewish people, and Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. These weeks are ones of comfort, consolation and hope after the tragedies of Tisha B’Av, and also about reflection as we go from the saddest day of the Jewish year to the holiest, and shortly thereafter, to some of the most joyful days, the holiday of Sukkot (Tabernacles) to be exact.

Is there a way to tell from the Torah reading of Eikev (Devarim, Deuteronomy 7:12-11:25), of this coming Shabbat, Sabbath, the second week of consolation, that there is hope for the future of a people barely two weeks after commemorating such tragic events, the destruction of the Temples, the exiles, the slavery, the deaths of so many?

We know that there were 70 years between the destruction of the First Temple and the beginning of the rebuilding of the Second. Divrei Hayamim II, 2 Chronicles 36:21 gives a reason for the interlude, “To fulfill the word of the Lord in the mouth of Jeremiah, until the land was appeased for its Sabbaths; for all the days of its desolation it rested until the completion of seventy years.”

Rashi, the preeminent Jewish medieval commentator, explains that the 70 years correspond to the 70 Shmita, Sabbatical and Yovel, Jubilee years that the people of Israel did not observe.

According to the Torah, every seven years, one is not allowed to work the fields, but they must have a Shabbat, a Sabbath of their own. Shmita means release, and so, the land is released from being cultivated, and even from ownership of whatever may grow. The same rules apply in the Yovel year, the end of seven consecutive Sabbatical cycles.

Rashi says the Children of Israel made God angry for 430 years of both kingdoms of Israel, in the north (Israel) and the south (Judah) – the division which came about because of anger and jealousy, after the Jews settled in the land following the Exodus from Egypt. That works out to 70 times a Shmita and a Yovel took place, and for those 70 times, those 70 years, the people did not fulfill the Shmita and Yovel requirements.

Rashi adds that these 70 violations were alluded to in Vayikra, Leviticus 26:34-35, as it says, “Then, the land will be appeased regarding its sabbaticals. During all the days that it remains desolate while you are in the land of your enemies, the land will rest and thus appease its sabbaticals. It will rest during all the days that it remains desolate, whatever it had not rested on your sabbaticals, when you lived upon it.”

OK, so we now understand why there was a 70 year exile after the First Temple was destroyed. But how does the Torah reading of Eikev play a part in this second Shabbat of consolation after Tisha B’Av, when that Temple and the next were destroyed?

Chapter 10, verse 22 in Eikev reads, “Bishivim nefesh, yardu avotecha Mitzrayma.” “With seventy souls, your forefathers went down to Egypt.” The 70 people were Yaakov, Jacob, and his extended family who went to Egypt to be with the newly found and reconciled Yosef, Joseph, and to make it through a famine.

Fine, 70 souls go down to Egypt and 70 years is the exile. But is there more to this than simply the number 70?

Let’s take a closer look at that verse in this week’s Torah reading of Eikev. It uses the word “Nefesh” for souls. But that word is singular; it really means soul. Why is the singular form of the word used?

The Kli Yakar, a 16th century Jewish commentator, at a similar verse in the Torah portion of Vayigash in Bereishit, Genesis (46:26), explains, till the brothers’ reconciliation with Yosef, they still harbored jealous feelings toward him, so Yaakov’s family was divided. But with the resolution between Yosef and his brothers that had taken place when the brothers went to Egypt for food – Yosef forgiving his brothers for what they had done to him and the brothers relinquishing their ill feelings toward Yosef, all were united as one.

After the years of separation and bitterness, the brothers were now all one soul, unified in spirit and purpose, ready again to be one family.

Every Hebrew letter has a numerical value and so, every Hebrew word has a cumulative numerical value, and many commentators over the years have used these numerical values as hints and/or teaching tools.

The numerical value of the word, “Nefesh” is 430 and I think this is telling us something. The Land of Israel had to rest 70 years to make up for the 430-year period when Shmita and Yovel were not being observed. After that period of time, the people of Israel could again become unified, ready and worthy enough to become one soul, just like the sons of Yaakov who had experienced their own exile of sorts, a familial one.

Upon the people’s return to Israel, there were no longer two kingdoms, one in the north and one in the south. There was one people, free from anger and jealousy, unified in spirit and purpose, to rebuild the Temple and to inhabit and properly treat the land that God gave them.

Nefesh. One soul. Many years after the events noted above, these lessons of unity, as opposed to division and conflict, still resonate.

About the Author
Shia Altman who hails from Baltimore, MD, now lives in Los Angeles. His Jewish studies, aerospace, and business and marketing background includes a BA from the University of Maryland and an MBA from the University of Baltimore. When not dabbling in Internet Marketing, Shia tutors Bar and Bat Mitzvah, and Judaic and Biblical Studies to both young and old.
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