Parashat B'ha'alotkha

Jews March On

The verses recited when the ark (and today the Torah) was carried remind us of our own restless wanderings.

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The following article is reprinted with permission from Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life.

All of chapter 10 of B'midbar, which falls in the middle of Parshat B'ha'alotkha, sees that Israel is preparing for war and the Holy One is choreographing the march. After the priests are given their instructions Moses tries to convince his father-in-law to come along. Moses has the last word, but the Torah doesn't tell us whether he agreed to go in the end. Then we are told:

Numbers 10:33-11:3

(33) They marched from the mountain of YHWH [God] a journey of three days, the coffer of YHWH's covenant marching before them, a journey of three days, to scout out for them a resting-place. (34) Now the cloud of YHWH is over them by day, as they march from the camp.

(35) Now it was, whenever the coffer was to march on, Moshe would say: arise (to attack), o YHWH, that your enemies may scatter, that those who hate you may flee before you! (36) and when it would rest, he would say: RETURN, O YHWH, (YOU OF) THE MYRIAD DIVISIONS OF ISRAEL!

(11:1) Now the people were like those who grieve (over) ill-fortune, in the ears of YHWH. When YHWH heard, his anger flared up; there blazed up against them a fire of YHWH and ate up the edge of the camp. (2) The people cried out to Moshe and Moshe interceded to YHWH, and the fire abated. (3) So they called the name of that place Tav'era/Blaze, for (there) had blazed against them fire of YHWH.

Your Torah Navigator

The verse that has been capitalized is the same verse we chant when we ceremonially remove the Torah from the ark and march it around the congregation. In the Torah these verses are bracketed by what looks to be two Hebrew "noons" in reverse. The purpose of these two mysterious signs is discussed in the Talmud and the midrash [commentary]. There are two opinions:

One says they indicate that these verses do not belong here. The other says they indicate that these verses should be seen as a separate book. And it is learned from this opinion that if a Torah scroll contains at least 85 Hebrew letters like the two aforementioned verses, then you are allowed to save it from a burning building on Shabbat. In other words, it retains its status as a sacred text.

Read the previous parsha and see if you can find a more appropriate place for these verses.

Other than the backward noons, why would these verses be considered more book-like than the Ten Commandments?

What would be the reason for purposefully misplacing these two verses?

The Talmud Shabbat 116a teaches that the verse is here because it creates a break between two negative occurrences. It is obvious that the complaints of the people that occur immediately after these two verses is a negative occurrence, but how is it to be understood that:

(33) They marched from the mountain of YHWH a journey of three days, the coffer of YHWH's covenant marching before them, a journey of three days, would be considered negative?

The Talmud says, when the Torah states that they marched from the mountain, it means that they turned away from God at that moment. The Ramban (Nachmanides) comments: Like children running from school, lest they be given more commandments to do.

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Rabbi Avi Weinstein

Rabbi Avi Weinstein is the Head of Jewish Studies at the Hyman Brand Hebrew Academy in Kansas City.