What Truly “Counts”?

What Truly “Counts”?

In just a few days, many of us will be doing a lot of counting. We’ll be counting down the last few seconds of 2023. We’ll be reflecting on the fact that 2019 – back in the “before times” – is about to be five years ago. We’re checking our bank accounts to make our end-of-year donations. Some of these numbers will feel intuitive; others will require a little more calculation to make sure we get them right. Some numbers have both a deep resonance and evoke memories and emotions, while others are more practical, utilitarian, and precise.

Judaism is filled with mystical and special numbers – we can probably come up with multiple connections to numbers like forty (years of wandering in the desert, Moses’ number of days on Mt. Sinai), ten (number of commandments), four (just about everything at Pesach), eight (nights of Hanukkah, days of Sukkot), and so on. The number seventy is such a number – the Torah is said to be reflected in “seventy faces,” seventy elders joined Moses on Sinai, and, in this week’s portion Vayiggash, the text says that “The total of Jacob’s household who came to Egypt was seventy persons.” (Genesis 46:27)

The problem is that in verse 26, just beforehand, it says, “All the persons belonging to Jacob who came to Egypt – his own issue, aside from the wives of Jacob’s sons – all these persons numbered 66.” The way we can reconcile these texts and bring the number up to seventy is to draw focus to the phrase “who came to Egypt” – two of Joseph’s sons were born in Egypt, and two of Judah’s sons died in Canaan, so since those four didn’t count, 66 + 4 = 70. It certainly seems like the text wanted to emphasize the round number of seventy rather than counting each family member. “Seventy” had emotional evocations; 66 didn’t.

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