As we see with the creation of the world, the number “seven” represents the physical creation of the world. The number is very common in the Torah – it is the number required to make something all anew, or to change something.
Just as it took G-d seven days to create the world, it takes mankind a period of seven to transform ourselves or others. Seven is the number representing the cycle of days to achieve Shabbos, the cycle of seven years to the land’s fallow year, and at other places in the Torah, the period of mourning, or shaming, or healing. Each of these things is compared, by the use of the same number, to the creation of the world.
So just as G-d changes the universe in seven days, when a person changes himself, he has changed his entire reality – it is as if he has built the world anew.
It works in the negative sense as well: G-d threatens to take “sevenfold” revenge on anyone who kills Cain; G-d is telling mankind that to take another life is like destroying the world.
In another prominent example: a Jewish servant works for seven years, and then he is free to go – but if he prefers, he can decide to stay in his new world, with his master, his house and his wife. After seven years he is allowed to lock in the rest of his life – he is now fit to commit himself.
Similarly, when Jacob bows seven times to his brother Esau when they reconcile, those seven bows (coupled with the presents, the repeated statement that Jacob is Esau’s servant and that Esau is “my lord”) can be understand as Jacob giving back the blessings that he had stolen. Jacob is making full restitution for wronging Esau in the first place.
So while the number “seven” is quite common in the Torah (and consistently carries the same symbolism), the combination of “seven” with another “seven” (or seven squared) are much less common, and reveal another dimension.
For example, the kosher animals were saved “seven and seven”, in part to tell us, as I wrote here:
I think the “seven seven” refers to the notion that there are seven earthly levels, mirrored by seven levels of heaven (I described this in the past comparing the menorah to the corn in Pharaoh’s dream). The animals that are capable of spiritual growth have a spiritual mirror as well, hence the “seven, seven.”
So if this reading is correct, a pair of sevens represents a spiritual analogue to the physical.
We can see this in the story of Jacob and his wives. Jacob meets Rachel, falls in love, and ends up working seven years for her sister, Leah, and then seven more years for Rachel herself.
Leah seems to be an ideal wife. She dotes on her husband; the Torah makes it clear that she cares about his happiness, about earning his love, and providing him children.
Rachel, on the other hand, is a much more ambiguous character. She seems to subscribe to superstition (the episode with the flowers), and has separation issues from her father’s religion (when she steals his idols). But most peculiar of all is that the text calls Rachel, when we first meet her, a “yefas toar” – a phrase that occurs in Deut. 10, describing a beautiful (non-Jewish) woman who is captured in battle.
In the Torah, such a woman is clearly a longshot for marital harmony, but the Torah clearly allows a man to take that captive to wife (under specific conditions). (Fascinatingly, the only other time the same phrase is used is to explain Potiphar’s wife’s attraction to Joseph, which also did not work out particularly well). If being “attractive of form” is such a problem, then why is Rachel described that way?
I’d say that Rachel represents the counterweight to Leah’s loving desire to please her husband. Rachel’s first recorded words in the Torah are to demand, “Give me children – otherwise I am dead.” Rachel represents the challenge of unrequited love for the man who loves her (the text never says that Rachel loves Jacob). Rachel is, in her way, a proper yefas toar, a beautiful captive who provides intangible frustrations to her husband.
When Jacob earns his wives, he does not merely get a pair of women. Instead, he earns the entire possible range of temperaments that can be found in any relationship. The sisters represent the full spectrum – not merely one world, but all possible worlds. If Leah represents a happy and safe relationship, the combination of both Leah and Rachel gives Jacob a fully dynamic (and sometimes chaotic) family life.
Pharoah’s dreams are also combinations of sevens and sevens – ears of corn, cows, and famine. They, too, represent a full transformation of Egypt (and Israel) in all of its forms: the introduction of Jacob’s family (and all the culture and baggage that came with it) into Egypt, the transformation of Egypt wherein Joseph would end up purchasing all the land and people to be slaves for Pharoah, the wheels that were set in motion for the enslavement of the Jews and their subsequent violent Exodus. Egypt and Israel were transformed by that experience, both physically and spiritually: seven sevens.
“Seven and seven” (in this case, multiplied) is also the number of days between leaving Egypt and the events at Mount Sinai. After centuries of what could best be described as divine neglect, the Jews found themselves thrust into a crash course on how to be close to G-d, to receive the Torah. We relive this experience between Passover and the Feast of Weeks (Shavuot) every year, as we count seven sevens from the time of the Exodus until the time the Torah was given. (See Deut. 16:9)
Lastly: while every seven years the land must be left fallow, every seven seven years, all the land outside of a walled city reverts to its previous owner. It is called yovel, or Jubilee.
And thou shalt number seven sabbaths of years unto thee, seven times seven years; and there shall be unto thee the days of seven sabbaths of years, even forty and nine years. (Lev. 25:8)
As I have written before, the purpose of the Jubilee is to force each person, no matter how involved they become in matters of the tangible world to seek a relationship with G-d, to pray in the face of uncertainty.
Seven sevens perpetuates insecurity (and growth) in both a physical and a spiritual sense. Just as seven and seven made Jacob experience the full marital gauntlet, the Torah is telling us that from the animals in the ark, to descending to – and then rising out of – Egypt, when we encounter seven sevens, we undergo a complete reboot of ourselves and and our relationship with our creator.