By Shlomo Riskin
“And it came to pass, when the Ark traveled forward, that Moses said, ‘Rise up O God, and scatter Your enemies; and let them that hate You flee before You.’ And when it rested he said, ‘Return O God, unto the myriads [literally ten thousands] of the families of Israel.’” (Numbers 10:35–36)
Tradition ordains that the two verses quoted above be bracketed, as it were, by two inverted nuns, the 14th letter of the Hebrew alphabet. So strong is this scribal tradition that even the printed Bible texts set these verses off with the two inverted nuns. The Talmud raises the issue of this curious typography, explaining – in the name of R. Judah the Prince, primary transmitter of the Mishna – that “in the Torah parchment this section is preceded and followed by a reversed nun…because it ranks as a biblical book by itself” (Shabbat 116).
Indeed, these verses are teaching us that the true source of our strength, endurance, and eternity as a nation is our Torah, and our Torah alone! The pages of our Torah parchment – which in reality can be overturned by a strong wind – have nevertheless enabled our beleaguered and seemingly powerless nation to emerge strong and influential; indeed, it is because of that Torah that we have succeeded in rising from the ashes of Auschwitz, returning as a sovereign nation to our homeland, and effecting an ingathering of exiles from Ethiopia, India, Bosnia, and Russia.
But why utilize the Hebrew letter nun to express the truth of the power of our book? In Berakhot (4b) we are taught that the Ashrei prayer, comprised primarily of the 145th Psalm, which we say thrice daily, follows the pattern of the letters of the Hebrew alphabet by having each of its verses begin with another letter of the alphabet in proper order from aleph to taf. However, one letter is conspicuous by its absence: “Why is there no nun in Ashrei? Because the fall of Israel begins with it, as it is written: ‘Fallen, [nifla], she shall not again rise, O virgin of Israel [Amos 5:2].’” This Talmudic passage states that nun is the last letter we would expect to find encompassing a “book” attesting to Israel’s eternity. However, the nuns that surround our verses are inverted!
If we turn to Nahmanides’s explanation concerning the rainbow that God placed in the sky as an expression of His covenant with Noaĥ, we find that, for this great sage, the symbolism of the rainbow is that of an inverted bow [as in bow and arrow]:
He [God] has not made the rainbow with its feet bent upward because it might have appeared that arrows were being shot from heaven…. Instead He made it the opposite of this in order to show that they are not shooting at the earth from the heavens. It is indeed the way of warriors to invert the instruments of war which they hold in their hands when calling for peace. (Nahmanides on Genesis 9:13)
If the inverted bow, or rainbow, of the covenant with Noaĥ symbolizes the very antithesis of war, the inversion expressing not war but peace, then it is logical to assert that the inverted nun of this portion symbolizes the ascent of Israel rather than her demise. Indeed, the Talmudic passage we cited previously goes on to reinterpret the verse from Psalms by merely changing the punctuation: “The fallen [daughter of Israel], she shall never [fall] again; Rise, O Virgin of Israel” (Amos 5:2). In effect, our two reversed nuns are a silent covenant between God and the Jewish people that the Torah, eternal source of strength of our nation, has the power to scatter all our enemies as long as we, the People of Israel, always move together with the Ark! In effect, ours is a portable Torah which we must always take with us.
“When the Ark traveled forward” alerts us to the significance of the necessity of the Ark, and the Torah it encompasses, to travel together with the nation, albeit a little bit ahead – but never so far ahead that it leaves the people behind. Perhaps this is the real significance of Rashi’s comment: “Since the Ark was three days ahead of where the Jews were when they were traveling, therefore Moses said, ‘Stand and wait for us; don’t go further away’” (Rashi on Numbers 10:35). Rashi is teaching us that Moses was scrupulous about making sure that the Ark was never more than three days ahead. Obviously we require the proper religious leadership to ensure that the people are in step with the Torah – but the Torah must be in step with the people as well. Hence our sages are forbidden from legislating a decree that the majority of committed Israel cannot abide by.
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone and chief rabbi of Efrat, Israel.