I have met Jewish individuals who considered themselves to be “universal” and who liked to stress that all peoples and traditions are basically the same. They were therefore embarrassed to admit that there was anything unique about our people and our tradition. They did not realize that to be “universal” is to recognize and appreciate the diversity within humankind, for each people, including our own, has something unique to give to human civilization. Some of my Jewish friends have this more sophisticated universal awareness, and they view humankind as a “rainbow of peoples”; moreover, they view the Jewish people as one of the “colors” of the rainbow.
When I explored the universal vision of the Torah, however, I discovered a deeper awareness of the role of our people, as my study revealed that we are a “rainbow people” which represents the seventy primary peoples of the earth. The Book of Genesis (chapter 10) records the seventy descendants of Noah who founded the seventy peoples that are the roots of the diverse national groups and cultures which we have today.
There is a connection between our story and the story of the earth’s seventy peoples. For example, regarding the beginning of our exile into Egypt, it states, “All the souls of Jacob's household who came to Egypt totaled seventy” (Genesis 46:27). According to our tradition, the seventy peoples of the earth correspond to these seventy souls (Targum Yonasan on Deut. 32:8).
What is the significance of the number “seventy”? We have a tradition that there are seventy diverse traits within the world, as the Midrash teaches:
The Holy One, Blessed be He, has seventy names; Israel has seventy names; the Torah has seventy names; Jerusalem has seventy names (Numbers Rabbah 14:12).
We are the rainbow people with seventy names who serve the One with seventy names through fulfilling the Torah with seventy names; moreover, our spiritual center - Jerusalem – has seventy names.
What is the deeper significance of this special role of Israel – the people with seventy names? I found one answer in the following explanation of Rabbi David Feinstein, a noted contemporary sage: The Creator implanted the seventy diverse characteristics of humanity within Israel, for this people is to serve as a model for the seventy peoples by demonstrating that each of these characteristics can be used for holy purposes. We accomplish this goal through living the Torah, and Rabbi Feinstein points out that the seventy aspects of the Torah parallel the seventy peoples and their cultures. We have the responsibility to become a universal model, explains Rabbi Feinstein, because God wants all peoples to rise to their greatest spiritual potential. (Art Scroll commentary and notes to Genesis 10:1)
There is another aspect to the universal role of our rainbow people: When we dedicate the seventy diverse aspects of creation to the unifying purpose of our Creator, we reveal the unity within the diversity. In this spirit, our sages teach:
“Just as He is One, so is Israel one. Just as His Name is One, but detailed in seventy, so is Israel one, but detailed in seventy” (Zohar, Exodus 16b)
Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen
A Related Teaching:
Through the seventy judges of the Supreme Court of Israel (Numbers 11:16), we dedicate the seventy aspects of creation to the universal Divine justice. According to the Midrash, these seventy judges correspond to the seventy peoples of the world (Targum Yonasan to Genesis 28:3). This is another indication that we have the responsibility to serve as a universal model for the peoples of the earth.