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Devarim 5782 - The Span of Our Life is Seventy Years

August 6, 2022 - 9 Av, 5782

In the year 5783 - both in the time that has passed and the time we have left - six members of our congregation have celebrated their 70th birthdays. As two of these celebrations were in the past week, and one is soon to come, now is a fitting time for us to explore the significance of the age and number of 70 in Jewish tradition. 

Right off the bat, we address one jarring Biblical reference to the age of 70: 

יְמֵֽי־שְׁנוֹתֵ֨ינוּ בָהֶ֥ם שִׁבְעִ֪ים שָׁנָ֡ה וְאִ֤ם בִּגְבוּרֹ֨ת ׀ שְׁמ֘וֹנִ֤ים שָׁנָ֗ה וְ֭רׇהְבָּם עָמָ֣ל וָאָ֑וֶן כִּי־גָ֥ז חִ֝֗ישׁ וַנָּעֻֽפָה׃

The span of our life is seventy years,

Or, given strength, eighty years;

But the best of those years

Are plagued with troubles and pain

They pass by quickly, and they disappear (Psalms 90:10).

Our ancient rabbis and those of us who have known healthy, content people beyond the ages of 70 or 80 can be perplexed by the notion that seventy, maybe eighty, is the end of a life that has surely been plagued with troubles and pain. Thankfully for Rava, teaching in Talmud Bavli Moed Katan (28a), “the length of life, children, and sustenance do not depend on one’s merit, but rather they depend upon fate.” The page upon which Rava speaks contains stories of Rabbis who lived long, joyful lives, Rabbis who lived short, meaningful lives, and Rabbis who experienced pain and sorrow with a variety of lifespans. For the Rabbis of the Talmud, 70 could not possibly mean the ideal lifespan, as lifespan and quality of life varies for each individual. The number of years a person lives does not matter, but rather, the content of each life. 

The Rabbis’ commentary on Psalm 90:10 gives us more context for a verse that comes later in that same Psalm:

למנות ימינו כן הודע ונבא לבב חכמה

Teach us, therefore, to number our days / that we will bring a heart of wisdom (Ps. 90:12).

While 70 or 80 certainly do not mean an ultimate end to life, those milestones can represent a fullness of life, a time to reflect upon the days experienced thus far. The milestone age of 70 gives us a chance to review the experiential wisdom we have gained, to devise ways we can use that wisdom in the time we have left, and to brainstorm how to pass that wisdom on to generations to come.

No matter what particular experience a person has gained, anyone who has lived those seven decades has gained wisdom from a wealth of sources and individuals. Chances are, they have seen several sides of every argument. Throughout time, they have altered their beliefs and opinions, the more they have learned. It’s no wonder, then, that that number 70 has come to represent nuanced understanding and potential throughout Jewish text and tradition.

In Masekhet Shabbat (88b), the Rabbis of the Talmud teach that the Torah was transmitted in all “70 languages” of the world. In the same vein, in Masekhet Sanhedrin (17b), the Rabbis teach that every member of the Sanhedrin, the great deciders of the Jewish people, had to be fluent in each and every one of those “70 languages.” Just as God wants to ensure that each and every person understands the words of Torah as their own, so too, the Sanhedrin wants to make sure that each and every person can state and hear their case without the use of an interpreter. With each of these languages covered, the Torah and the judgments of the Sanhedrin are transmitted with the maximum level of understanding, for the great diversity of individuals that exist among the people Israel. 

Diving deeper into the 70 languages spoken in the Sanhedrin, the Sanhedrin itself consists of 71 individuals, representing the 70 elders plus Moshe himself who have access to the spirit of God while traveling in the wilderness (Number 11:16). More on that portion of Bamidbar/Numbers during 929 learning today! Moshe cannot withstand the burden of his people alone; rather, he needs the support of a diversity of judges and advisors, with their different interests, opinions, and skill sets. So, too, at the end of the book of Genesis, 70 diverse individuals from Jacob’s family travel down to Egypt from the land of Canaan (46:27). With the symbolic 70 languages of the world, the 70 + 1 members of the Sanhedrin, and the 70 founders of the people Israel, that number 70 represents a diversity of wisdom and experience. In 70 years, any person has experienced enough life and known enough acquaintances to gain the nuance for wise decisions and complex knowledge.

Finally, when we speak of the number 70 in the Jewish tradition, we must also mention the interplay of 7 and 10 - 7 days of Creation, 7 Sabbatical years, 7 series of 7 to form the days of the omer or years of the Jubilee, 10 commandments, 10 plagues, and so on and so forth. With every repetition of the number 7, we have a new chance for Creation; with every repetition of the number 10, we have a new choice between blessing and curse. While that marking of year 70, year 7x10, does not have particular halakhic significance, it should have intense personal significance. That year 70 can be the year of intentional new creation and new choice, a new chapter in life.

As so many in our congregation have approached this significant milestone, we all can take this year as an opportunity for meditation. For all of us, what are the pieces of wisdom we can draw from and act on, that reflect the unique diversity of our experiences? Who needs to hear that wisdom, and how do we teach it? Each and every one of us has met innumerable people with different backgrounds and insights, have read books and articles from all different points of view, and have experienced the highs, lows, and in-betweens of life in immeasurable ways. From the broadness of life experience, each of us has the ability to both appreciate and be aware of the number of our limited days, and from that awareness, to acquire a heart of wisdom.

In the name of all who have experienced one of these milestone 70th birthdays in recent months and to all who will soon, a blessing from the home prayer book On the Doorposts of Your House:

River of light and truth, You have sustained me these many years and brought me to this place in my life’s journey. Let me look out with wisdom, from the high ground of my years and experiences, over the terrain of my life. Let me gaze out toward the past and the future with a heightened sense of Your presence as my Guide. Let me see that growth is not reserved for any one season, and that love and fulfillment are not the exclusive provinces of the young.

As today I celebrate my life’s continued unfolding, I am awestruck by the wonder of my being. And so I pray that kindness and compassion may be on my lips, that strength and courage may be with me in my comings and goings, and that I may continue to learn from and to teach those dear to me.

O God my Creator, as You are the first and the last, may my life ever be a song of praise to You.

And we recite our traditional blessing in the presence of the wise (repeat after me):

ברוך אתה יי אלהינו מלך העולם שנתן מחכמתו לבשר ודם.

We praise You, Eternal God, Sovereign of the universe: You give of Your wisdom to flesh and blood.

Shabbat Shalom.

Fri, January 27 2023 5 Shevat 5783