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BREAK IN THE ACTION

by Rabbi Mendle Dickstein    
Torah from Dixie Staff Writer    

When the ark would travel, Moses would say, 'Arise, Hashem, and let Your foes be scattered, let those who hate You flee from before You.' And when it rested, he would say, 'Reside tranquilly, Hashem, among the myriad thousands of Israel'" (Numbers 10:35-36).

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When the ark would travel, Moses would say, 'Arise, Hashem, and let Your foes be scattered, let those who hate You flee from before You.' And when it rested, he would say, 'Reside tranquilly, Hashem, among the myriad thousands of Israel'" (Numbers 10:35-36).

These two verses in this week's portion are unlike any other sentences in the entire Torah, for they are set off from the rest of the narrative by two inverted Hebrew letter nun's, one appearing before the passage and one after. The Talmud explains that these verses really should appear in an earlier Torah portion, however they were placed here instead to constitute a break in a series of three successive episodes in which the Jewish people sinned. The first of the three sins, according to several commentators, was their great happiness upon leaving Mt. Sinai. Relieved that they would not be receiving any more mitzvot, they fled from the mountain of Hashem like a child running away from school, an attitude not befitting a holy nation. Later, after traveling without rest for three days, the people complained about the frantic pace at which Hashem was driving them. The third of these sins was their complaining bitterly about the miraculous manna which Hashem so generously supplied every day during their stay in the desert.

Since a threefold repetition constitutes the establishment of a pattern in Jewish law, and Hashem did not want such a negative pattern to be created, these three events are not recorded in succession without a break in between. The above passage, surrounded by the two letter nun's, was upended from its proper place and inserted here between the first two sins to interrupt the string of transgressions, thereby preventing the creation of the pattern. Still to be explained, however, is why the division was specifically placed between the first two episodes and not between the second and third. If the purpose of this passage is to prevent the creation of a pattern, the Torah could have just as easily and effectively inserted these verses immediately before the pattern would have been created, between the second and third events. Why were they specifically placed between the first and second? Furthermore, what is so special about these verses that they were chosen to form this interruption?

To answer these questions, we must first understand the importance of maintaining consistency in our service of Hashem. When Joseph, still disguised as the viceroy of Egypt, revealed himself to his brothers with the words, "I am Joseph, is my father still alive?" (Genesis 45:3), the brothers were so overwhelmed that they could not answer him.

The Bais Halevi, one of the most brilliant Torah scholars of the 19th century, explains that Joseph had dealt them the ultimate rebuke, pointing out the glaring inconsistency in their actions. Yehudah had been pleading with Joseph to take into account the suffering of their aged father and free Benjamin (who had been taken captive for supposedly stealing the royal goblet). To this, Joseph retorted, "I am Joseph - how can you claim to be concerned for your father's pain and sorrow? You clearly were not concerned when you sold me into slavery! When it is convenient, you are concerned with our father's welfare; however when it serves your purposes to be oblivious, as it did when you sold me, you look the other way." Through this inherent inconsistency, the brothers' entire argument fell by the wayside, as it was contradicted by their very own actions.

We can now understand why the displaced passage was inserted between the Jewish people's eager departure from Mt. Sinai and their complaints about the swift pace at which they were traveling. When they initially ran to avoid additional mitzvot, Hashem gave them the benefit of the doubt, observing that if they had so much energy to run from Mt. Sinai, then that energy could be harnessed and directed towards their running to their final destination, the land of Israel. However, when they immediately complained that they lacked the stamina to hurry to the land of Israel, they revealed their true motivation for running away from Mt. Sinai. It was the ultimate self-condemnation and inconsistency. While they were willing to run away from mitzvot, they were unwilling to comply with Hashem's desire to hurry to the land of Israel.

To minimize the inconsistency involved between these two episodes, the Torah creates an interruption through the Hebrew letter nun, which usually represents ne'emanut - faithfulness and consistency (Talmud Tractate Shabbat 31a). Here, by inverting the nun's, the Torah shows that there was a lack of consistency - their behavior contradicted itself. The two verses set off by the inverted nun's describe the antidote to that inconsistency, the medicine with which the Jewish people could cure this spiritual illness. Upon seeing the Clouds of Glory begin to ascend and depart, signaling Hashem's desire that the Jewish people resume their journey in the desert, Moses would proclaim, "Arise Hashem. . . ." This proclamation was a confirmation of Moses' willingness to subjugate his own preferences and desires to the will of Hashem. When Hashem was ready to go, Moses was eager to comply; so too when Hashem wanted to stop. Moses' dedication served as a shining example to the rest of the Jewish people, teaching them how to rectify the problem of inconsistency.

May we strive to correct this flaw so that the inverted nun's are once again upright, as they are in the ultimate expression of our total devotion to Hashem - "na'aseh v'nishma - we will do and we will listen." Then we will merit the fulfillment of Isaiah's prophecy, two other words that also begin with the letter nun: "Nachamu nachamu - be comforted, My nation," the ultimate Divine redemption.

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Rabbi Mendle Dickstein writes from Atlanta.

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