Jews March On

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

Commentary on Parashat Beha'alotcha, Numbers 8:1 - 12:16

All of chapter 10 of the Book of Numbers, which falls in the middle of Parashat Beha’alotcha, 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, Jethro, to come along. Moses has the last word, but the Torah doesn’t tell us whether Jethro 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.

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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 of the Hebrew letter “nun” in reverse.

The purpose of these two mysterious signs is discussed in the Talmud and the midrash. 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 Torah portion and see if you can find a more appropriate place for these verses.

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

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

Shabbat 116a in the Talmud 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.

These two misplaced verses become a remedy, showing that Israel was not always complaining and that they were capable of running toward the ark just as they were capable of turning away from the Holy One’s Torah.

These verses which accompany every Torah reading as the Torah travels to and from its ark are verses which have yet to find their place. They reflect the travels and exiles of Israel, which is a book that does not even rest within the five books, it is the book of a restless people who even when they are given a place, the place cannot either draw or hold them. It becomes the home we wander toward and away from.

These verses become the book of moving toward responsibility with the understanding that our resting times through history’s eye are actually very brief. These 85 letters are the subtext of the Jewish people.

The first verse calls and indeed prays for protection from without while the next verse prays for “Return, O YHWH, (you of) the myriad divisions of Israel!” Indeed, a prayer for peace among the myriad divisions that can destroy from within. Isn’t it ironic that the very next verse is one of internal dissension?

The backward letter nuns tell us to carry these verses with us wherever we go as we pray for peace from within.

Reprinted with permission from Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life.


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