Meaning

1. Eyes  2. salvation

Rabbi Elazar ben Azaryah was asked to become the Nasi (head) of a prestigious Torah Academy. After discussing the opportunity with his wife, she said, “But you have no white hair (i.e., you’re only eighteen years old)! It’s disrespectful for such a young man to lead the entire Academy.” Now, what is a sign of someone old enough to be worthy of respect? White hair. That day, a miracle occurred and eighteen rows of hair in Rabbi Elazar ben Azaryah’s beard turned white.1

This is why, after accepting the position, R. Elazar ben Azaryah began his opening address with the words, “I am like seventy years old,” and not “I am seventy years old.”

Design

The ayin is the sixteenth letter of the alef-beis. According to the AriZal, the ayin is a vav contained in a nun. The nun represents humility. The vav signifies Torah, which descends from Heaven to earth in its inherent design of a hook or a chute. Vav also has the gematria of six. This represents the Six Orders of the Mishnah, the Oral Law. Only an individual who is unassuming, who has the humility of the nun, is fit to acquire the higher level of the vav, the “crown of Torah.”

There is a second aspect of the ayin’s design, which is that the ayin is actually two eyes united at the optical chiasma—the nerve center that receives and interprets visual impulses—at the back of the head. Two eyes attached to a central link can be clearly seen in the letter’s form.2 This offers us a new under­standing of the mitzvah of donning tefillin: specifically to the positioning of the head tefillin. In Deuteronomy3 it says that G‑d’s commandments shall be “between your eyes.” In Jewish law, between one’s eyes means the point between the eyes as it travels up just above the hairline. In actuality, the proper posi­tion of the head tefillin is slightly above the hairline atop the soft part of the skull. Viewed from above, this soft spot is literally at the mid-point between one’s eyes4 and the chiasma. The head tefillin is thus set directly between the physical eyes of the body and the eye of the brain, just as the Torah pre­scribes.

All twenty-two letters of the alef-beis may be written in the Torah in small, medium, or large size. Most letters are medium sized, but there are many instances of small and large letters. The first word of the Shema שמע is written with a large ayin.

In his commentary on the Book of Psalms, the Tzemach Tzedek5 explains that this large ayin is in fact the antidote to the ayin of the word miyaar (“of the forest”), which appears in Psalm 806: “The boar of the forest (miyaar)ravages it [the vine of Israel], and the crawler of the field feeds on it.” The ayin of the word “forest”—מיער—is suspended slightly above the rest of the word. Rashi says that if the Jews are righteous and do G‑d’s will, then this suspended ayin will be transformed into the alef of the word יאר, yaar, meaning “river.” A boar in a forest is dangerous. It can attack and seriously harm someone. A boar in a river, however, can’t swim. It is rendered harmless.

It is interesting to note that the suspended ayin of miyaar occurs at the exact mid-point of the Book of Psalms.7 The halfway point of the Torah happens to be the word gachon,8 which is translated as “snake.” Both these mid-point terminol­ogies connote evil or doom. The power of Torah, however, is that with it, the meritorious Jew can rend in two the boar of the forest and the snake, the forces of evil, signified by the place­ment of both these words in their respective books.

The Maharsha9 explains that the ayin of miyaar represents the ayin of Esau, עשו, and his descendants, the nation of Amalek, עמלק, who constantly attempt to destroy the Jewish people. It states in Chassidus that Esau and Amalek and their descendents attempt to “cool down” the Jews’ passionate quest for G‑dliness. We refer to the verse10 which is commonly trans­lated as “[Amalek] struck those of you who were hindmost.” In Hebrew, the word translated here as “struck,” קרך, actually means “cooled down.” The nation of Amalek—whether it exists outside of the Jewish people or within us in the form of the yetzer hara, the evil inclination—is that which tells us, “Cool down.” Esau, like his brother Jacob, also knows the laws of Torah. But he says, “Come on. Don’t take the Torah so seri­ously. You won’t be the first one to sin. You won’t be the first not to put on tefillin or keep Shabbos. Cool down. It’s not so important....” Therefore, the ayin of the Shema is large because the Shema expresses our unconditional acceptance of the yoke of G‑d. And having made that commitment, the Jew transforms the ayin of Esau and Amalek, which is indifference, to the ayin of the Shema, which is passion for G‑dliness.

Gematria

The numerical value of ayin is seventy.

In his opening address to the Academy, Rabbi Elazar ben Azaryah said:11 “I am like a seventy-year-old man and I had never succeeded in proving that one has to recite the [verse about] going out of Egypt [in the third paragraph of the Shema] at night until I found the words of Ben Zoma, who explained the verse ‘Remember going out of Egypt all the days of your life’ as follows: Why does the verse include the word ‘all’? It seems to be redundant. Therefore, Ben Zoma explains, ‘The “days of your life” means the daytime. “All” comes to include the nights as well.’ The Rabbis add to the words of Ben Zoma, ‘The “days of your life” refer to the days of this world, the world in which we’re presently living. All the days, however, includes the days of Mashiach.’”

Now two obvious questions arise. First, why is it important that Rabbi Elazar ben Azaryah said, “I am like seventy” when he delivered his inaugural speech? Secondly, why did he choose to deliver his first public address on the third paragraph of the Shema?

Seventy represents one who is in total control of his emo­tional attributes. As we discussed in the chapter on kaf, there are seven general emotional characteristics. Each one of these seven traits in turn contains ten levels: the three of the intellect and the seven of the emotions.12 When an individual has totally refined all of these seventy levels, he is then fit to lead and teach others. The Rebbe once said, “First you must become a master over yourself, the personal world within. Then you must master your family environment. Only then can you endeavor to be a leader in the world.”13

At the age of seventy, or “like seventy,” after one has acquired the requisite strength and vision and has attained these seventy levels of spirituality, one is then fit to be a Nasi in Israel.

What’s the job of a leader? To bring redemption to his peo­ple. We now see the brilliance of Rabbi Elazar ben Azaryah’s first address. It was not merely a speech; it was a mission statement,14 as will be explained below.

Etymologically, the Hebrew word for Egypt, Mitzrayim, means “constraints,” and “limitations.” The job of a Nasi is to help his people go forth from these self-imposed or general limitations. This is known as Geulah—Redemption—and the days of Mashiach. There are three stages to this Redemption:

The first stage is to recite the passage about “going out of Egypt”15 during the day. This represents the condition of living in light: when times are good, when the Jewish people have their land, and there’s no danger of assimilation or anti-Semi­tism (e.g., the near-perfect state that existed during the period of the First Holy Temple). When things are going well, one is obligated to make even greater strides and thrive: to immerse oneself in prayer and study; to attain even greater levels of piety by helping others; to write commentaries and expound on the teachings of the Torah and Talmud.

The second stage, as pertains to Ben Zoma, is to recite at night the passage on “the going out of Egypt.” For even during exile, even during the darkest and most challenging hours, an individual or a people are required to go out from their current borders. A person must transcend his constraints, regardless of his economic condition or social status. The Rambam is a perfect example. He first escaped the Almohadsin Spain. He then fled to Morocco and eventually settled in Egypt, the land of “constraints and limitations.” What did the Rambam do there, in this dark, foreign environment hostile to Jews? He wrote his magnum opus known as the Mishneh Torah, the only text in history that codified the entire Torah. The Rambam not only transcended his boundaries, he transformed them.

Finally, the Rabbis say that in this world, even before the ultimate revelation of Mashiach, we must incorporate the reality of Redemption into our very being, our constitution. We must live our lives as Jews to the fullest measure. We must go out unconditionally from all borders, be they material limita­tions or those of doubt or fear. A leader motivates his followers to make that leap. The leader within each of us can effect our own individual and personal redemption.

Meaning

Ayin means eyes, as it states:16 “And your eyes עיניך,einecha, shall see your Teacher (i.e., G‑d).” Another verse reads: “And the glory of G‑d shall be revealed and all flesh shall see together that the mouth of G‑d speaks.”17 Only one who is “like seventy”—one who has refined each of the seven emotional attributes, as explained above—can reach the level of seeing G‑dliness in this world. With this quality of insight, one can lead a nation to Redemption.

Furthermore, ayin also stands for salvation, eizer, עזר. Rabbi Elazar ben Azaryah’s name itself intimates a special salvation from G‑d. Elazar (in Hebrew, E-l eizer), אלעזר, means “G‑d is [my] salvation.” Azaryah עזרי-ה means “[My] salvation is G‑d.” This explains Rabbi Elazar ben Azaryah’s statement, “I am like seventy years old.” For Rabbi Elazar ben Azaryah had acquired all the qualities needed for leadership because G‑d was his help and salvation. He was therefore endowed with this rare quality of leadership at such an early age.

This then is the meaning of being a leader: to visualize—see—Redemption and convey this message to others. As such, one thereby transforms the ayin of miyaar to the ayin of the Shema—where one can “Lift up [one’s] eyes and see G‑d.”18