A Taste of Torah: Weekly Commentary from the JTS Community
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 Matthew Berkowitz, Senior Rabbinic Fellow, JTS
Parashat B'ha–alot'kha continues the narrative of the Israelite journey through the wilderness of Sinai. More than that, a curious phenomenon occurs at the midpoint of this week's parashah. An inverted Hebrew letter nun appears twice, forming bookends around two verses: Numbers 10:35–36. They read, "When the Ark was to set out, Moses would say: Rise up, O Lord! May your enemies be scattered, and your foes flee before You! And when it halted, he would say: Return, O Lord, You who are Israel's myriads of thousands!" While these verses are most recognizable from the opening of the ark during the Torah service, the unusual markings formed by the inverted nuns lead to a fascinating teaching in the Babylonian Talmud: "Rav Shmuel Bar Nahmani said in the name of Rabbi Yonatan: the Book of Numbers is divided into three books, and the books of Torah total seven, as it is written in Proverbs 9:1, 'Wisdom has built her house, she has hewn her seven pillars'" (Shabbat 116a). Why are these two verses so significant as to constitute a book unto themselves? What can be learned both from their content and structure?
Firstly, Rashi, the prolific medieval commentator, addresses Moses' calling God to attention, "rise up" (kumah). How and why would Moses have the gumption to command God? Rashi's response is telling. He comments that, "Since God was leading the people by a distance of three–days journey ahead of them, Moses would say periodically, 'Hold up and wait for us, and don't move too far ahead of the people!'" That in itself is worthy of a separate book of Torah. Leadership, as Moses "teaches" God, is about staying just slightly ahead of one's flock. While one must lead, one cannot make the mistake of leading too quickly so as to leave the followers behind. To do so, results in an isolated and lonely leader, and a group wandering in chaotic directions. Secondly, Sifre B'midbar offers an important commentary on the meaning of the dispersal of God's enemies. Who are God's enemies? Sifre queries and then responds, "How is it possible for God to have enemies? The verse teaches that if one is an enemy of the righteous, it is as if one is an enemy of God." Thus, the second aspect learned from this brief book is the importance of Godly qualities. The righteous, who act in the true image of God, that is to say with loving kindness and discipline, represent God's presence. To act against these representatives of God, as it were, is acting against God's self. Thirdly, we encounter the command for God to "return" to Israel. Clearly, this notion should be our desire daily; that as we turn to God, God may turn and return to us. This is the idea encapsulated in the very Jewish idea of teshuvah, repentance, but literally meaning to "return."
Leadership, love, and liege are the primary lessons learned from this brief, yet critical book in the life of Israel. These qualities form the foundation of both our relationship with God and our relationship with community.
Rabbi Matthew L. Berkowitz