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Be'halot'cha(Numbers 8-12)

The Seven Books

One God, two Tablets, three patriarchs, four matriarchs, and five books of the Torah; that is how the song from the Haggadah goes, as every Jewish child knows.

The corpus of our Written Law has long been identified as the Five Books of Moshe, the Chumash (derived from the Hebrew word chamesh, meaning five) or Pentateuch, which also denotes that it is comprised of five books. This is clear, self-evident and indisputable - or is it?

Rabbinic tradition may be far less unequivocal: For example, on the verse (Proverbs 9:1), "[Wisdom] has hewn out her seven pillars," Rashi explains that the seven pillars are the "seven books of the Torah" (2) - despite the fact that the last time any of us looked, there were five books, no fewer and no more. Rashi's cryptic comment reflects an earlier tradition that the book of Bamidbar (Numbers) is actually made of three separate books: The first begins with Chapter 1, verse 1 and ends at Chapter 10, verse 34. The third book begins with the first verse of Chapter 11 and continues through the last verse of what we know as the book of Bamidbar. The material between these two "books" is the second book, to which we will return momentarily; first, let us examine the first and last of these three books.

The contrast between the two is stark: The former is a book of hope and purpose, as the Israelites prepare to take their first steps of departure from Sinai. The latter is a book of missteps, as the Israelites flounder from one debacle to the next, getting no closer to their destination. This might be an exaggeration - at the end of the book the Jews stand at the cusp of the Promised Land - but not much: 40 years pass and the Promised Land remains an elusive destination, an unfulfilled promise.

All this leads us back to the second book that comprises Bamidbar, which is the strangest one of all. This book consists of only two verses, a mere 85 letters (in Hebrew):(2)

When the Ark traveled, Moshe said, "Arise, God! Scatter Your enemies, and let those who hate You flee before You." And when the Ark rested, he would say, "Return, God, the myriad of thousands of Israel!" (Num. 10: 35-36)

How can two verses be considered a book? And why are these two specific verses given this distinction? To make matters even more inscrutable, these verses are actually set apart visually from all other verses in the Torah, enclosed within a unique set of "brackets" or parentheses that are not used anywhere else: a pair of symbols created by what look like the inverted Hebrew letter nun.

This book-within-a-book, only two verses long, is distinguished from everything that comes before and after it, alerting us to the fact that here is something quite extraordinary. These are not simply a pair of innocuous verses; they indicate that something monumental happened, or to be more accurate, that something monumental did not happen - and therein lies the key to this unique, truncated book.

CANAANITE CONFLICT

What do these two verses actually tell us? The Holy Ark of the Covenant moves, for the first time since its creation, and Moshe calls out to God to scatter His enemies. What enemies are these? Quite simply, the nations occupying the Land of Israel: The time had come for the Israelites to come home and reclaim their birthright.

However, this explanation raises even more questions than it answers: What became of this triumphant march? As we know, Moshe never did spearhead the conquest of the Land of Israel; tragically, he died too soon and was not allowed to cross the Jordan. In a nutshell, this ephemeral second book within Bamidbar tells the story of what should have been.

As Bamidbar opens, the Jews make the necessary preparations to leave Mount Sinai and march to Israel. The third book recounts their wanderings and rebellions, covering the next 39 years. This middle book leaves a remnant of what should have taken place at that specific juncture. Armed with the Torah, unified as a nation with a glorious mission to fulfill, all that remained was to complete their short victory march. Instead, they make one foolish mistake after another; the vision encapsulated in these two verses does not come to fruition in Moshe's lifetime.

In essence, we may say that the Torah might have ended at this moment in history: The covenant between God and Avraham would be realized as the Ark of the Covenant led them into the land of their fathers. The two strange verses that comprise this second book are a remnant of the book that was not written, the story that is never told, the alternative ending, the road not taken. In a manner that is never repeated, the Torah records what should have happened: First, the glorious march to the Land of Israel led by Moshe and the Ark of the Covenant:

When the Ark traveled, Moshe said, "Arise, God! Scatter Your enemies, and let those who hate You flee before You."

Then, the final chord:

"Return, God, the myriad of thousands of Israel!"

These two short, idyllic statements are the first and last verses of an uncompleted book, an account of events that never happened. The first verse describes the march to Israel led by Moshe - a march that would have been a bloodless conquest, devoid of conflict, as the Canaanite tribes that had taken up residence in the Land of Israel would have "exited, stage left." The second verse describes the culmination of history, when the Ark finally reaches its permanent resting place.

Tragically, all that remains of this idyllic denouement are the first and last verses, the hint of what should have been - and, perhaps, of what might yet be: When we are able to retake that moment in history, to climb back up to that level of preparedness that will allow us to pick up the narrative of the second book, we will be able to complete the triumphant tale. God will see to it that our enemies are vanquished, and all the Jews lost throughout the millennia of our seemingly aimless wandering will return home. As that final scene begins, a voice will call out:

"Return, God, the myriad of thousands of Israel!"

The ingathering of the Jewish exiles and the return of the Ark to its rightful place in Jerusalem were meant to be - and, one day, will be - the completion of the book of Jewish history, the book hinted at by these two verses in Parashat Be'halot'cha. This is the book of our potential, of our as-yet-unfulfilled destiny. May we merit its completion, speedily and in our days.

For more in-depth analysis see: http://arikahn.blogspot.co.il/2014/06/audio-and-essays-parashat-bahaalotcha.html

NOTES

1. I was first introduced to this concept by my father, who in turn heard it from Rabbi Yosef Soloveitchik. The teaching is based on some comments of the Seforno 10:35,36. Rabbi Soloveitchik's lecture on this topic can be accessed at: http://www.yutorah.org/lectures/lecture.cfm/751364/Rabbi_Joseph_B_Soloveitchik/Behaalotcha_%E2%80%93_Nosim_Anachnu

2. See Mishna Yadayim 3:5, Bereishit Rabbah 64:8, Vayikra Rabbah 11:3. Talmud Bavli Shabbat 115b-116a. For more see my book "Explorations," Parashat Beha'alotcha, The Unfinished Book, page 325ff.

 

 

 

 

June 2, 2015

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