Shabbat Shalom: Behaalotcha (Numbers 8:1-12:16)
By Rabbi Shlomo Riskin
Efrat, Israel – “And it came to pass, when the Ark traveled forward, that Moses said, “Rise up O God, and scatter Your enemies; and let them that hate You flee before You.” And when it rested he said, “Return O God, unto the myriads [literally ten thousands] of the families of Israel.” ( Numbers 10:35–36)
I would like to invite you to join me in a fascinating detective search, an intellectual journey whose destination is the understanding of a strange typographical biblical insertion in this portion of Behaalotcha, which gives rise to an even stranger rabbinical assertion. Tradition ordains that the two stirring verses quoted above be bracketed, as it were, by two inverted nuns, the fourteenth letter of the Hebrew alphabet. So strong is this scribal tradition that even the printed Bible texts set these verses off with the two inverted nuns. The Talmud raises the issue of this curious typography, explaining – in the name of R. Judah the Prince, primary transmitter of the Mishna – that “in the Torah parchment this section is preceded and followed by a reversed nun…because it ranks as a biblical book by itself” (Shabbat 116).
I would suggest that our sages are granting these verses the status of a separate book because they encapsulate the true potency of our Torah; indeed, these verses are teaching us that the true source of our strength, endurance, and eternity as a nation is our Torah, and our Torah alone!
Lest we make the mistake that might makes right, and that physical prowess ensures survival, we must be mindful of the fact that the Egyptian pyramids, Babylonian ziggurats, Olympian idols, Roman coliseums, Nazi swastikas, and Bolshevik hammer and sickles have indeed been scattered by the winds of history, while the pages of our Torah parchment – which in reality can be overturned by a strong wind – have nevertheless enabled our beleaguered and seemingly powerless nation (at least for two thousand years of exile) to emerge strong and influential; indeed, it is because of that Torah that we have succeeded in rising from the ashes of Auschwitz, returning as a sovereign nation to our homeland, and effecting an ingathering of exiles from Ethiopia, India, Bosnia, and Russia.
But why utilize the Hebrew letter nun to express the truth of the power of our book? In Berakhot (4b) we are taught that the Ashrei prayer, comprised primarily of the 145th Psalm, which we are enjoined to say thrice daily, follows the pattern of the letters of the Hebrew alphabet by having each of its verses begin with another letter of the alphabet in proper order from aleph to taf. However, one letter is conspicuous by its absence: “Why is there no nun in Ashrei? Because the fall of Israel begins with it, as it is written: ‘Fallen, [nifla], she shall not again rise, O virgin of Israel [Amos 5:2].’” This Talmudic passage states that nun is the last letter we would expect to find encompassing a “book” attesting to Israel’s eternity. However, we must remember that the nuns which surround our verses are inverted!
If we turn to Nahmanides’s explanation concerning the rainbow which God placed in the sky as an expression of His covenant with Noaĥ, we find that, for this great sage, the symbolism of the rainbow is that of an inverted bow [as in bow and arrow]:
He [God] has not made the rainbow with its feet bent upward because it might have appeared that arrows were being shot from heaven…. Instead He made it the opposite of this in order to show that they are not shooting at the earth from the heavens. It is indeed the way of warriors to invert the instruments of war which they hold in their hands when calling for peace. (Nahmanides on Genesis 9:13)
If the inverted bow, or rainbow, of the covenant with Noaĥ symbolizes the very antithesis of war, the inversion expressing not war but peace, then it is logical to assert that the inverted nun of this portion symbolizes the ascent of Israel rather than her demise. Indeed, the Talmudic passage we cited previously goes on to reinterpret the verse from Psalms by merely changing the punctuation: “The fallen [daughter of Israel], she shall never [fall] again; Rise, O Virgin of Israel” (Amos 5:2). In effect, our two reversed nuns are a silent covenant between God and the Jewish people that the Torah, eternal source of strength of our nation, has the power to scatter all our enemies as long as we, the People of Israel, always move together with the Ark! In effect, ours is a portable Torah which we must always take with us.
Permit me to develop this idea one step further – and attempt to elucidate the deepest meaning of the words of these verses. “When the Ark traveled forward” alerts us to the significance of the necessity of the Ark, and the Torah it encompasses, to travel together with the nation, albeit a little bit ahead – but never so far ahead that it leaves the people behind. Perhaps this is the real significance of Rashi’s comment: “Since the Ark was three days ahead of where the Jews were when they were traveling, therefore Moses said, ‘Stand and wait for us; don’t go further away’” (Rashi on Numbers 10:35). Rashi is teaching us that Moses was scrupulous about making sure that the Ark was never more than three days ahead. Remember the well-known adage of folk-wisdom: If you’re one step ahead of the generation, you’re a genius. If you’re two steps ahead, you’re a crackpot! Obviously we require the proper religious leadership to ensure that the people are in step with the Torah – but the Torah must be in step with the people as well. Hence our sages are forbidden from legislating a decree that the majority of committed Israel cannot abide by.
Furthermore, the latter portion reads: “And when it rested he said ‘Return O God unto the myriads [literally ten thousands] of the families of Israel.’” The root of the word “when it rested,” nuĥo, derives from the same root as sweetness, gentleness (noaĥ in Hebrew), expressing the idea that our Torah must be sweet and gently accepting and inclusive. Seen in this light, the verse enjoins us not only to endeavor to make Torah relevant, but also to see to it that it be an embracing and accepting Torah, a Torah of love and inclusiveness. After all, does not the Talmud teach:
For three years the schools of Hillel and Shammai debated the law, until a heavenly voice declared…“These and those are the words of the living God, and the law is like Beit Hillel.” If so [if both views emanate from God], then why is the law decided in accord with the school of Hillel? Because they are pleasant and accepting [noĥin], always teaching their view together with the view of the school of Shammai and even citing the position of Shammai before citing their own position. (Eruvin 13b)
If our Torah is a law of accepting love and not of fanatic hatred, of warming light rather than of destructive fire, then the myriads of families of Israel shall truly return to the welcoming words of God.