‘When the Ark traveled forward, Moses said, ‘Rise up, O God, and scatter Your enemies, and let them that hate You flee before You.’ And when it rested [Moses] said, ‘Return, O God, unto the myriads 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 Beha’alotecha, which gives rise to an even stranger rabbinical assertion. Tradition asserts that in the Torah scroll, the two stirring verses quoted above should 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 explains, “because the two verses rank as a biblical book by itself” [Tractate 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 source of our strength, endurance, and eternity as a nation is our Torah, and our Torah alone. 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 a worldwide ingathering of exiles from every continent.
But why utilize the letter nun? In the Talmud Berachot [4b] we are taught that the Ashrei prayer, comprised primarily of Psalm 145, said thrice daily, has 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’ explanation concerning the rainbow which God placed in the sky as an expression of His covenant with Noah [Genesis 9:13], he writes that the rainbow is an inverted bow [as in bow and arrow]: “It is the way of warriors to invert the instruments of war which they hold in their hands when calling for peace.”
If the inverted bow, or rainbow, symbolizes the 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 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, the eternal source of our nation’s strength, 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 that we must always take with us.
“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 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]. 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! 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 ruling that the majority of committed Israel cannot abide by.
Furthermore, the root of the word “when it rested” (nuho), derives from the same root as sweetness, gentleness (the word noach), expressing the idea that our Torah must be sweet, gently accepting and inclusive. Seen in this light, the verse enjoins us not only to endeavor to make Torah relevant, but also 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 (both) the words of the living God, and the law is like Beit Hillel.’ If so, then why is the law decided in accord with the school of Hillel? Because they are pleasant and accepting (nohin), always teaching their view together with Shammai’s, even citing the position of Shammai before citing their own position” [Eruvin 13b].
If our Torah is a law of love, of warming light rather than of destructive fire, then the myriads of families of Israel shall truly return to the welcoming words of God.
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone and chief rabbi of Efrat.
Shabbat Candles: 8:12 p.m.
Torah: Numbers 8:1-12:16
Haftarah: Zechariah 2:14-4:7
Havdalah: 9:13 p.m.