Thursday, April 16, 2015
Who knows seventy?
Seventy years is an important time span in Jewish symbolism and history. For millennia, it has been seen as the amount of time we need to fully recover from a catastrophe, to the point where the tragedy can give way to a burst of creativity.
It was seventy years after the first temple was destroyed in 586 BCE that an edict of King Cyrus restored a glimmer of hope to a Jewish people primed to return to Jerusalem.
It was seventy years after the second temple was destroyed by the Romans, in the year 70, that Jews gathered their resolve and revolted, anticipating another redemption, similar to the one that had occurred six centuries earlier. Although this time hope was crushed with the defeat of Bar Kochba in the 130s, precisely seventy years after that, the Mishnah was completed and rabbinic Judaism came to fruition.
Seventy years after the expulsion from Spain in 1492, Jewish life, replanted in Safed, came to full flower with the publication of the Shulchan Aruch.
Seventy years is a biblical lifetime.
Psalm 90 states “Our days may come to seventy years, or eighty, if our strength endures.”
In the Talmud, Honi the circle drawer slept for seventy years, awakening to witness the fully grown tree that he had planted for his grandchildren.
It’s a powerful, mystical number, the combination of two sacred numbers, seven and ten. There are seventy members of the Sanhedrin court, seventy elders to support Moses, seventy words in the Kaddish, seventy faces of Torah, seventy names for God. In numerology, seventy is equivalent to the letter ayin, the eye that can see hidden mysteries and connections.
So it makes perfect sense that after seventy years, the equivalent of a lifetime, we can at last envision new possibilities and remove ourselves from the traumas of the past.
This week we mark exactly seventy years since the liberation of Bergen-Belsen. It is now precisely seventy years since the end of the Shoah. So we are presented with the eternal question of the middle child (the one squeezing between her two siblings in the back seat of the car):
Are we there yet?!
Where is our Mishnah or Shulchan Aruch? Where is our Cyrus to release us from Babylonian bondage? Where is Honi, who can remind us of our duty to focus on the future rather than on the past?
With each prior tragedy-plus-seventy, not only have we been able to move on, but we’ve been able to do it one specific way: by re-imagining God’s role in history. And by re-envisioning God, we’ve also been able to forgive God – and again be thankful for all of life’s blessings and for life itself.
But the Holocaust is unique, and seventy is not time enough. We’re not ready to move on. We’ve seen all too clearly that we are not yet ready to transition from victim to visionary. There are still too many real victims walking among us, as well as too many who have fallen victim to the Shoah’s lasting scars of cynicism and despair.
It is still too soon to say to God all is forgiven, much less that we are grateful. It is still too soon to say that all is explicable. Maybe someday it will be. Right now, the greatest favor we can do for God, and for our own intellectual integrity, is to leave God out of this conversation. We have a covenant with God, and that is at Sinai. But Jews have another Covenant: the one made at Auschwitz, the Covenant of Never Again. The promise to remember is not a pledge made to God, but to humanity.
Seventy years appears to be the point of separation, of moving on. That’s the way it’s always been. But not here. Not now. Not with survivors still walking among us. Not with so many Jewish souls still singed with anger and mistrust. And perhaps, some would say, not with so many real dangers afoot as to warrant that mistrust.
Our ancestors could move on, but we can’t. Not yet.
Perhaps in another seventy years.