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JTS Torah Commentary

Parashat B'ha·alot'kha 5766
Numbers 8:1 - 12:16
June 17, 2006     21 Sivan 5766

This week's commentary was written by Rabbi Jay M. Kornsgold, Beth El Synagogue, East Windsor, New Jersey

I have always been intrigued when reading the Torah by the out of the ordinary occurrences in the text itself such as dots above words and larger or smaller letters. Often, discussions in my congregation become focused on these anomalies. In the portion of B'ha·alot'kha the Hebrew letter nun is reversed before and after the following passage: "When the Ark was to set out, Moses would say: Advance, O Lord! May Your enemies be scattered, And may Your foes flee before You! And when it halted, he would say: Return, O Lord, You who are Israel's myriads of thousands" (Numbers 10:35 36)

These words are recited as part of the service when we remove the Torah from the ark and when we return it to the ark. Why does this passage appear in the Torah surrounded by reversed nuns? In the Babylonian Talmud Tractate Shabbat, the rabbis teach us that the letters were put here to indicate that this passage does not really belong here. This passage was intended to be placed in the Torah in chapter two of Numbers where the arrangement of the tribes in the camp under their specific tribal banners is discussed (115b 116a).

The first question that arises is what is it about the text that mandated a separation by the inserted passage? The Talmud states: "In order to provide a break between the first punishment and the second punishment." The first punishment precedes the first reversed nun. There the Torah says: "They marched from the mountain of the Lord." (Numbers 10:33). In the Talmud, Rabbi Hama ben Rabbi Hanina understood this verse to mean that the people turned away from following God. The second punishment occurs right after the second reversed nun where we learn that the Israelites complain bitterly (Numbers 11:1). Although the reason for the complaint is not stated, the commentary in Etz Hayim surmises: "According to Rashbam, the people objected to the forced marches. An additional complaint may have been a lack of water" (827).

The rabbis suggest that these two accounts of punishment need to be broken up. The passage between the two reversed nuns is inserted here so as to take away the gloomy effect that would be felt when reading this part of the Torah. The Talmud goes on to explain that in the future, when all evil has ended, the section will be placed in its proper place.

I think the rabbis were very practical in their understanding that to have one punishment section after another would give readers the mistaken impression that the Israelites were constantly behaving in an inappropriate manner. This would lead us to think of them in a negative way. I also feel that the rabbis were trying to say that it is difficult for humans to experience one tribulation after another. If we undergo one negative experience in our lives followed by another negative experience, it makes it very difficult to cope with both situations. If we can find a way to separate the two situations, our day to day lives will be easier to handle, and we will hopefully feel better about the events that are consuming our lives.

The next question that begs to be addressed is why was this passage chosen to make the separation? Before we can contemplate the reason for the choice of these two verses, we need to understand what it is that the verses are saying. It seems at first glance that this passage contradicts a previous verse in our portion: "At a command of the Lord the Israelites broke camp, and at a command of the Lord they made camp" (Numbers 9:18). Our relocated passage, on the other hand, seems to indicate that it was Moses, not God, who determined when the Ark moved and when it stopped. There is a beautiful midrash from the Sifrei which resolves the two verses. The midrash states:

How can these two verses be reconciled? To what may this be compared? To a king who was going on a journey accompanied by his bosom friend. When he resumes his journey he says: I shall not go forward until my friend gives the order, and when he halts he says: I shall not halt until my friend comes along (Sifrei B'midbar piska 26).

Commenting on this passage from Sifrei, the modern Biblical commentator Nehama Leibowitz says: "This Midrash graphically illustrates the highest degree of communion and closeness between man and his Maker, and the complete identity of aim" (Studies in B'midbar , 90).

The way in which we carry out our close relationship with God, the way in which we show our identity of aim, is by performing the mitzvot. When we observe the mitzvot we carry out God's will and feel close to God. We perform as many mitzvot as possible in our attempt to capture the closeness that Moses had with God. By committing to the mitzvot we proclaim the importance of God in our lives. By doing so, we have the ability to enrich our lives each day and to carry out the words that we say in the Alenu three times each day: "To perfect the world under God's kingdom." We become partners with God to try to make the world a better place to live for all of us. When we perform the mitzvot and work with God we strive to become shalem — complete and whole as individuals. It is at that moment that God is near to us. We are then able to reach the level of "communion and closeness" with God that Leibowitz describes.

Now that we appreciate the meaning of the inserted verses, we can address why this is the passage that was chosen to make the separation. Let us think of the separated texts as two different tribulations faced by the Israelites. Each day of our own lives, we may experience tribulations, challenges. At times we may become overwhelmed by what is happening in our lives. If we follow the Torah's example and separate our own tribulations with "communion and closeness," with the performance of mitzvot, the challenges will become more manageable. When we observe the mitzvot, they help us to deal with what we are facing in our own lives and bring us closer to God.

Each time the Torah is taken out of the ark and each time it is returned, we are reciting words from the passage that is surrounded by the reversed nuns in the Torah. These words should draw our attention to the mitzvot commanded us in the Torah, which is about to be or has just been read. We should remember that throughout our lives we may experience many trials, but when we perform the mitzvot and do God's will, we can mitigate these times and make them easier to bear. By doing so, we will become enriched by "communion and closeness" to God and will be able to grow as individuals and as Jews.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Jay M. Kornsgold


The publication and distribution of the JTS Commentary are made possible by a generous grant by Rita Dee and Harold (z"l) Hassenfeld.