Judaism: Beha'alotcha: Travelling
“And it was that whenever the Ark would travel, Moshe would say: Rise up, O HaShem, that Your enemies be scattered and Your haters flee from before You. And when it would rest he would say: Return, O HaShem, to the myriad thousands of Israel” (Numbers 10:35-36).
These two verses – nineteen words, 85 letters – are set off from the rest of the Book of Numbers by two inverted letter nuns. The Talmud (Shabbat 115b-116a) records two different explanations as to why these two verses are set off. According to Rabbi Yehudah ha-Nassi (“the Prince”, meaning Head of the Sanhedrin), the two inverted nuns which set these two verses apart indicate that this short section constitutes a complete Book of its own.
In the Midrash (Vayikra Rabbah 11:3) this is also the opinion of Bar Kappara, who was a student of Rabbi Yehudah ha-Nassi (Yevamot 32b), and according to the Rambam (Commentary to the Mishnah, Introduction to the Order of Zeraim) was part of Rabbi Yehudah ha-Nassi’s Beit Din (Rabbinic court).
This is logical. After all, these two verses tell us not of a single historical event, but of an event that was repeated dozens of times through our desert trek.
Thus the Ba’al ha-Turim (Rabbi Ya’akov ben Asher, Germany and Spain, c.1275-1343) notes that the first of these two verses (“And it was that whenever the Ark would travel…”) contains twelve words, the same number as the final verse in the Torah, and the second of these two verses (“And when it would rest…”) contains seven words, the same number as the first verse in the Torah. “This indicates that this section has the importance of a complete Sefer Torah in and of itself”.
Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel disagreed with Rabbi Yehudah ha-Nassi. According to Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel, the two inverted letter nuns indicate that these two verses appear in the wrong place. According to him, G-d inserted these two verses here in order to provide a break in the series of sins and consequent punishments.
The first of these sins was immediately before: “They travelled from the Mountain of HaShem a three-day journey...” (Numbers 10:33), which Rabbi Chama bar Rabbi Chanina (Talmud, Shabbat ibid.) interpreted to mean that “they turned away from behind HaShem”. And the second of these sins comes immediately after: “The nation became as complainers…” (Numbers 11:1).
The Talmud (ibid.) continues: “So where is its correct place? – Said Rav Ashi: In the section of the flags”. The “section of the flags” refers to Numbers Chapter 2, which recounts how each tribe and each family encamped by its flag, and also in which order the Tribes would travel.
The Ba’al ha-Turim notes that the two inverted letter nuns give a very subtle hint to this. The gematria (numerical value) of the letter nun is 50, so the inverted nuns refer us 50 parashiyot backwards. (A parashiya is approximately equivalent to a paragraph, and the gaps in the Hebrew text divide the Tanach into “open” and “closed” parashiyot.)
On the face of it, Rabbi Chama bar Rabbi Chanina’s interpretation that “they travelled from the Mountain of HaShem a three-day journey...” means that “they turned away from behind HaShem” seems puzzling. After all, it was G-d Himself Who told them to leave!
And more than this: the purpose of leaving Mount Sinai was to come to Israel. “They travelled from the Mountain of HaShem a three-day journey, with the Ark of HaShem’s Covenant travelling a three-day journey ahead of them to reconnoitre for them a resting-place” (Numbers 10:33), and “a resting-place can only refer to the Land of Israel and Jerusalem, as it says ‘This is My resting-place for ever, here I will dwell because I yearn for it’ (Psalms 132:14)” (Sifrei Zuta 12:16).
“‘…A three-day journey’ – they travelled a three-day journey in just one day, because G-d wanted to bring them into the Land of Israel immediately” (Rashi on Numbers 10:33, following Sifrei Bamidbar, Parashat Beha’alot’cha 82).
So how was their leaving Sinai a “turning away from behind HaShem”?!
The Tosafot (Shabbat 115a, s.v. puranut rishonah) says that “they travelled from Mount Sinai a three-day journey like a child who, upon leaving school, runs off to wherever he wants. That was how they ran away from Mount Sinai a three-day journey, because they had learned much Torah at Sinai”.
The Ramban (Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, Spain and Israel, 1195-c.1270) paraphrases and clarifies: “They travelled from Mount Sinai joyfully, like a child escaping from school. They said: Maybe He will give us even more commandments [if we stay here]! So the phrase ‘they travelled from the Mountain of HaShem’ means: They wanted to travel away from there precisely because it was ‘the Mountain of HaShem’” (Commentary to Numbers 10:35).
For sure, G-d instructed them to leave, which they did eagerly – just with the wrong intentions. G-d’s intention was to bring them into the Land of Israel as quickly as possible; their intention was to get away from Mount Sinai as quickly as possible. And their subsequent behaviour showed that they were not exactly eager to enter the Land of Israel.
Nevertheless, whatever the Israelites’ intentions may or may not have been, G-d’s intention was to bring them into His Land as quickly as possible. The Ba’al ha-Turim sees an additional allusion to this in the two inverted nuns (as mentioned earlier, nun equals 50). “He inserted these two inverted nuns because He wanted to bring the Tribes who between them contain 50 letters [see Sotah 36a] over the River Jordan which is 50 cubits wide , but the sin [of the spies] prevented that”.
These two verses, set apart from the rest of the text by these two inverted nuns, have much to teach us – about our relationship to Mount Sinai, to the Torah, to the Land of Israel, about the interconnectedness of all these – which lessons we do well to reinforce frequently.
So it was a stroke of genius to integrate these two verses into our prayers. Every time we open the Ark in the Synagogue to take out the Sefer Torah, we recite “And it was that whenever the Ark would travel, Moshe would say: Rise up, O HaShem, that Your enemies be scattered and Your haters flee from before You”.
Rabbi Yosef Tzvi Hertz (Chief Rabbi of Britain and the British Empire 1913-1946) writes on this: “The Ark of the Covenant, guiding the Israelite tribes in their desert wanderings, typified G-d in front of His people – the Divine Presence – protecting them, and leading them on to victory. We still feel the thrill of sacred enthusiasm that animated our fathers of old when they heard these words” (Commentary to the Siddur).
And upon returning the Sefer Torah to the Ark after the Torah-reading, we recite “And when it would rest he would say: Return, O HaShem, to the myriad thousands of Israel”, on which Rabbi Hertz comments: “As at the Opening of the Ark, our minds go back to our fathers in the Wilderness. We well might take to heart these immortal ancient words; and at the beginnings and endings of all our efforts, not only of our Readings of the Torah, offer up these old prayers – the prayer which asks for the Divine Presence in the incipiency of our labours, and the prayer which asks for the Divine Presence at the completion of our work”.