the 7th Book of Moses
“And when the ark was to set forth, Moses would say: Advance, O Lord! May your enemies be scattered, And may your foes flee before you!
And when it halted, he would say: Return, O Lord, to the tens of thousands of the families of Israel!”
In middle of this week’s reading these two verses stick out, separated at their beginning and end by an unusual symbol which appears only here in the Torah: the upside-down form of the Hebrew letter ‘nun’.
Why are these verses separated in such an unusual way?
The Talmud (Tractate Shabbat 116 a) suggests that these two verses comprise an entire Book of the Bible in themselves. If so, the rabbis calculate, this means the book of Bamidbar comprises three separate books – one before this section, these two verses, and then one which follows, meaning that there are not five but seven books of Moses. (In fact this observation even has halakhic implications – a Hebrew book is required to contain 85 letters, like these two verses, in order to have the status of a holy text.)
But why should the book of Bamidbar be divided up in this way? These two verses represent a division between two different parts of Bamidbar which are very different in tone. Prior to this point, the Book of Bamidbar has described the ideal state of the Children of Israel: the holy tabernacle has been completed, and the Israelites are about to commence their journey towards the promised land of Israel.
But from this point onwards the Book of Bamidbar takes a very different turn. It is marked by murmurings and complaints from the people, by divisions among different factions, and ultimately by the sin of the spies which resulted in a delay of 40 years before the Israelites could enter into the land of Israel.
These two parts of Bamidbar, then, represent the ratsui and the matsui – the ideal and the reality which so often falls short of our hopes and expectations. And the two verses, the ‘extra book’ in our reading come to suggest that as different as they are, there may be a way to build a bridge between the two.
And why these two verses in particular? The two verses highlight the two key challenges we face when our value systems are tested against harsh practicality. The first talks about times of crises and battle, and the second about periods of calm and prosperity. In the first case, the times of crisis and battle, the challenge is that when the “Ark also set forth” the values we cherish are not left behind in the heat of the moment. And indeed, it was the law that the Holy Ark carrying the Ten Commandments would accompany the children of Israel into battle, a reminder that if our values are to mean anything to us, they must also guide us in times of greatest difficulty.
But times of comfort and prosperity present challenges also. As the second verse suggests, when the ark “rests”, the challenge is that traditions and beliefs will no longer be seen as a force for unity, but will become tools of friction and divisiveness. It is this challenge that the second verse addresses. In times of calm, when the “arks rests” we must remember that it is not the property of a select few, but the common heritage of the entire people; we call on God not just through a religious elite, but via all the “tens of thousands of the families of Israel”.
These challenges are as present for modern Israeli society as they ever were for the Israelites in the wilderness: the temptation, in times of crisis, to fall short of the standards we have committed ourselves to, and outside times of crisis, the risk that we may lose our sense of peoplehood and of a common destiny. These two short verses, the 7th book of Moses, are a reminder that by acting with conviction, even in times of crisis, and by preserving unity, even in times of comfort, we may yet succeed in bridging the gulf between the ideal and the reality.
In others’ words
“In spite of continuous and grave problems of security and survival that we face, we will not be diverted from our path, from the great moral values that are the basis of our society, and which place us on the side of justice, of righteousness, of freedom and of peace.”Address by Prime Minister Shamir to the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs, 8 January 1987.
On a lighter note
The following joke, familiar to many Yeshiva students, highlights the difference between the ideal and the reality:
A Yeshiva student had recently got married and told his Rabbi that he was planning to build a house for himself and his wife.
“You should know”, said his teacher, “that the Talmud gives precise instructions on exactly how to construct a house. If you are a serious student of Talmud you should follow these instructions.”
Dutifully the student studied the relevant Talmudic passages, and built his house in accordance with the instructions, down to the last detail. But the day before he and his wife were planning to move in, the entire house collapsed.
The student went back to his teacher and asked him how such a terrible thing could have happened.
The learned Rabbi pored through his Talmud for a moment, looked over the commentaries, and then his eyes lit up with satisfaction. “How remarkable!” he declared. “Rashi asks exactly the same question!”