(Welcome to the next series in Aliba D'Rav: The Exodus:5 Project. Each week for 40 weeks this column will focus on the fifth verse of the next chapter of Exodus -- a number chosen because, well, just because. If you would like to receive these columns directly to your inbox, just send a note to the Google Group "Aliba D'Rav." I invite you to subscribe AND to send your friends to this website where other writings reside. And if you got excited because you thought Leon Uris had sent in a long-awaited set of sequels from the World to Come, spoiler alert: Ari Ben-Canaan's grandson becomes a tech mogul and marries an Israeli actress who plays a comic-book superhero.)
The Exodus:5 Project
The total number of persons that were of Jacob’s issue came to seventy, Joseph being already in Egypt. Exodus 1:5
My friend Randy gave me a terrific book that lampoons the notion that correlation has anything to do with causation. Though a series of overlapping graphs, Spurious Correlations (by Harvard student Tyler Vigen) demonstrates conclusively that over a ten-year period, the number of divorces in the State of Maine parallels the per capita consumption of margarine in the United States, and that the number of people who drowned after falling out of a fishing boat trends almost exactly with the number of marriages in Kentucky. (All this preceding Kim Davis skewing the results by refusing certain couples licenses.)
We have a fascination with numbers that leads us to believe ideas that are patently ridiculous. But because “numbers don’t lie,” we accept on some level connections that deceive us into illogic.
There is a “science” of numbers in interpreting the Bible that relies on correlations of this kind. It is called gematria and is a favorite of another friend of mine, Don (who knows Randy). In gematria, every Hebrew letter is assigned a number. By adding the numerical values of a given word, you can presume that it has a relationship to any other word with the same numerical value. For example, the Hebrew spelling of Chanukkah (which is more standardized than the English spelling) has a numerical total of 83. So does the word machala, which means “sickness.” A clever homileticist might suggest that the way we celebrate the winter holiday should make us sick or, conversely, that the events surrounding the rededication of the Temple reversed the sickness of foreign influences that weakened Jewish life. I could go either way.
But just because correlation does not imply causation does not mean that numbers are incidental. Back before mathematics, the days I yearned for in algebra and beyond, what we had was mostly addition and subtraction. Numbers were less exact or, perhaps, less factual than symbolic. As such, it is hard to read the ancient documents that we consider holy (like the Torah) with the same scientific precision as we read the algorithms that enable you to receive these words on the internets.
That’s true in very small ways today. Baskin-Robbins ice cream used to come in 31 flavors, and then it was 31 flavors plus chocolate and vanilla, and now they don’t even bother – but anyone of a certain age hears “31 flavors” and thinks “jamocha almond fudge.” Heinz probably had 57 varieties of sauces, but now it is simply a part of their logo. And when daylight savings time ends, 12:00 will be a different time than it was the day before – but will still represent noon and midnight.
One of the numbers with such meaning in the Bible is 70. There is a completeness to 70, a sense that it is a number that encompasses the wholeness of whatever is attached to it. The tradition insists that there are 70 nations in the world – the wholeness of the clans among the human family. The rabbis suggested that there are 70 facets to Torah – a reference to a cut gem that refracts light differently as it is rotated, but whose full splendor is impossible for the eye to capture at once. And Jacob had 70 offspring who landed in Egypt, not including Joseph, who was there already.
We don’t know the names of those 70 and therefore maybe we shouldn’t take the number so literally. But I am pretty sure we are meant to know that no one was left behind. Whatever happened to the children of Jacob happened to all of them. Whatever they accomplished, they accomplished together. Whatever blessings, whatever curses, whatever promises, whatever legacies – it was all or none. No one could stand apart and say, “I had nothing to do with any of this because my folks are back in the old country.”
There are 100 members of the United States Senate and 435 members of the House of Representatives. In the Senate, 100 is the new 70. In the House, it is 435. Whatever blessings, whatever curses, whatever promises, whatever legacies – it is all or nothing at all. Whatever they accomplish, they accomplish together.
And it may track with the number of listeners to talk radio or viewers of late-night talk shows. It may have a parallel graph with membership in certain churches or proclamation of absent faith. It may be remarkably similar to the per capita ounces of toothpaste in Utah or the number of calls for termite extermination in Phenix City, Alabama (population 32, 822). But correlation does not equal causation. Every one of those 535 human beings is responsible for the whole of ‘em.