All the people that came with Yaakov to Egypt, all his progeny, except for the wives of the sons of Yaakov, were sixty six people. And the children of Yosef who were born to him in Egypt were two people. All the people in the House of Yaakov who came to Egypt were seventy. (Bereishit 46:26-27) 

Parashat Vayigash, in these two short verses, opens the way to insights into the importance of self-respect as individuals and as part of a Jewish community on the one hand, and as part of the human race on the other. 

The Talmud and the Midrash refer to the whole of humanity as consisting of seventy nations. We see this in reference to the seventy bulls sacrificed throughout the seven days of Sukkot, which the Talmud (Sukkah 55b) tells us are meant to atone for the sins of the “seventy nations” so that rain might fall in a proper, life-giving measure throughout the world.  

This is not the only mention of the “seventy nations.” Rashi quotes Midrash Rabbah (Shemot Rabbah 1:30) as part of his commentary on the incident in which Moshe kills an Egyptian taskmaster, then goes to break apart a fight between two Israelite slaves. One says “Who made you a judge and ruler over us? Will you kill me like you killed that Egyptian?” Moshe then says to himself “The matter is known!” According to the Midrash, Moshe thought “Until now, I did not know how Israel could be punished so much more severely than the seventy nations. Now that I see the lashon hara (slanderous and degrading speech) that is so commonplace among Israelite slaves, it must clearly be the reason why they are Divinely punished with enslavement. That matter, meaning the reason for the Israelites’ enslavement, is now known to me.” 

From these texts, it seems that the number seventy is connected to nationhood, to sin, and to repentance. Another way of saying this is that the number seventy is connected to peoplehood, to all of humanity, and to moral responsibility. 

The seventy members of Yaakov’s household that came to Egypt mirror the seventy nations of the world. How may this be seen as true? Are the Jewish people a microcosm of humanity? Are the Jewish people reflective of the rest of the world?  

There is an inherent danger in such a symbolic reading. Are we so myopic as to think that we are the center of the universe? The answer, as Rabbi Bunim of Pschischa famously gave, is that we sometimes are, and must be. At other times, it is just as wrong to be so egocentric. He taught that everyone should have a note in one pocket reading “The world was made for me”, and a note in the other pocket reading “I am but dust and ashes.” How can we stand with a sense of awe and appreciation of humanity if we do not wonder at ourselves, or recognize our own importance as individuals? How can we empathize with others if we do not understand our own motivations? As a people, how can Jews understand the religious and cultural motivations and values of others if we do not stand firmly rooted in our own? Of course, the opposite is also true. If we only care about ourselves as individuals, or if our only sense of communal responsibility is to the Jewish community, then our care for others, our basic moral sense, is lacking. 

We are individuals, and have responsibilities to ourselves. We are Jews, and have obligations to the Jewish people and to our local Jewish community. We are human beings, and have obligations to all of humanity. As Torah is a way to cultivate spirituality along with ethical responsibility, we must strive to see the Divine brilliance in every human being; ourselves, our community, and the whole of the world. 

Shabbat shalom! 

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