Numbers 8:1 – 12:16
Do you know how many books there are in the Torah? According to the sages, the answer is not five, but seven! That’s right, seven. The ancient rabbis broke Numbers into three separate “books,” and the reason why can be found in this week’s Torah portion. Among the many and varied verses in the portion is an oddity of scribed Torah. Two verses from BeHa’alotecha are bracketed in every Torah scroll by a pair of inverted letter nuns:
This is the only place in Torah where we see anything like this. Why are these verses bracketed?
According to the Talmudic rabbis, God personally put these brackets in as a sign above and below these verses to teach, “that this [section] is not in its proper place [in the Torah]. Rabbi says: it is not for this reason, but rather because [this section] ranks as a book unto itself.” (Talmud Bavli: Shabbat, 115b-116a)
Let’s take a closer look at each of these answers. The first argues that God purposefully placed these two verses in the wrong place, and then put these markings in to make sure that we would know. Since the tradition teaches that Torah is perfect, this is part of the perfection of Torah. Where should these verses be? In chapter two, verse seventeen, where the marching and camping order of the camp is detailed and completed and the method of starting each march with moving the mishkan is described. Here’s how the text would read if the bracketed section were to be moved to chapter two:
“Then the tent of meeting, with the camp of the Levites, shall set forward in the midst of the camps; as they encamp, so shall they set forward, every man in his place by their standards.” (Num. 2:17)
It makes sense from a literary standpoint, but Rabbeinu Bachya takes this even further. He noted that the letter nun represents the number fifty. Numbers 2:17 is fifty sections before 10:35-6, where these verses are currently written.
Pretty cool, right?
Then there is Rabbi’s explanation, that these two verses are a book unto themselves. If this is true, then there are three books in Numbers: everything before this section is one book, the section itself is another, and everything after is a third book. In this reading, the section belongs exactly where it is in Torah – for why would God possibly put something in the wrong place, especially when it comes to Torah?
The Talmud initially seems to agree with Rabbi, and asserts that there are indeed seven books of Torah. According to Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel, this little “book” was inserted to put a separation between what happens immediately before and immediately after these verses, which he calls the “Two Punishments.” The first “punishment” was that after leaving Sinai it took us only three days to turn away from God. The second is that, despite how God provided us with everything we needed, the people complained vociferously about the food they missed from the “good old days” in Egypt. (Talmud Bavli: Shabbat, 116a) The “punishments,” then, were the severe sins of the people – deserving of Divine retribution. Placing these sins in different books, softens the blow for sensitive readers of the text, and gives Israel a fighting chance.
Rashi ultimately resolves both possibilities in his commentary to the Talmud. He taught that these verses are in the correct place now, but will be returned to their rightful place in chapter two when the Messiah comes and there will be no more Divine retribution.
The theological implications of these ideas are both extraordinary and practical. First, there is a direct causal link between leaving God behind and personal dissatisfaction. Even in the Wilderness, our awareness of the Divine Presence provides a sense of well-being, safety and fulfillment. When we turn away from God, we begin to discover an emptiness inside – and that emptiness leads us towards deep dissatisfaction even when we have everything we need. With God we feel the calm joy which comes with faith; without God we experience unhappiness, anxiety and fear. To leave God at Sinai is not only a sin against God, but a sin against ourselves!
Second, the choice to either embrace or abandon God not only effects our own individual lives, but the course of Creation. In other words, it has cosmic implications. Why? According to tradition, the World to Come – the world of peace and well-being we all wish could live in, will be ushered in by the Messiah. However, that will only happen when we no longer live in such a way as to deserve Divine retribution. In other words, the Messiah will only come when we have already done the heavy lifting to make this world the World to Come.
All of this from two little brackets …
Hi there! I am the senior rabbi at Temple Beth Ami in Rockville, Maryland, where I have served since 2016.
(c) copyright 2018 by Rabbi Gary Pokras