Consistency and Faithfulness
"When the Ark would travel, Moses would say, 'Arise God, and let Your foes be scattered, let those who hate You flee from before You.' And when it rested, he would say, 'Return, God, to the myriad thousands of Israel.' " (Numbers 10:35-36)
According to one opinion in the Talmud (Shabbos 116a), these two verses are set off by inverted nun letters, to constitute a break between three episodes in which the Jewish people sinned.
The first of the three episodes (according to Tosafos and Nachmanides) was when the Jewish people left Mount Sinai "as children who flee from school," i.e., relieved that they would receive no more mitzvot. Later, after traveling without stop for three days, the people complained and bemoaned the frantic pace at which God was driving them. The third of their sins was complaining about the manna and demanding meat.
Since a threefold repetition constitutes a pattern in Jewish law, the Torah did not record these three events in succession, without a break in between. Still to be explained, however, is why the division falls between the first two episodes and not between the second and the third.
To answer this last question, we must understand the importance of consistency in our service of God. When Joseph revealed himself to his brothers with the words, "I am Joseph; is my father still alive?" the brothers were so overwhelmed that they could not answer him. The Midrash comments, "Woe to us from the Day of Judgment and the day of reproof, for if the brothers could not answer the rebuke of Joseph, their younger brother, how much more so will we be overwhelmed by God's reproof when He in the future rebukes each one according to his deeds."
Bais HaLevi explains that the essence of Joseph's rebuke was pointing out the inconsistency of their actions. Until the moment Joseph revealed himself, Yehudah was pleading with Joseph to take into account the suffering of their aged father and therefore free Benjamin. To this Joseph replied, "I am Joseph. Where was your concern for our father's pain and sorrow when you sold me and convinced him that I was dead? Is he still alive after that? When it is convenient, you are concerned with our father's welfare, and when it serves your purposes, you are oblivious."
The Midrash (Tana D'vei Eliyahu) records a similar instance of rebuke. Elijah the Prophet found himself mocked by an ignorant boor, who did not even know the aleph-bet. Elijah asked the man if he did not fear for the day the Heavenly Court would ask him why he did not learn Torah.
The man replied that he was not afraid because he was not given the intelligence to learn and therefore could not be blamed. Elijah then asked him to describe how he made his living, and the man commenced an animated description of how he made fishing nets and set them out in the most efficient possible fashion.
At the end of this discussion, Elijah told him, "For fishing you have wisdom, and for Torah, which is even more crucial to life, you do not?" Immediately the man burst into tears at the realization that he had refuted himself.
Elijah concluded by pointing out how rampant is such inconsistency. There are those who will plead before the Heavenly Court that they were not given the means to give tzedakah, charity. They will be shown how for their own personal pleasures the money was somehow found. Others will defend their lack of Torah study on the grounds that they were too busy making a living. They will be shown the time spent doing nothing or in idle chatter. There is no more telling refutation of all our excuses than those we ourselves provide.
RULES OF SCRUTINY
The ideal service of God is described as "all your days" - without interruption, with consistency and constancy (Ibn Ezra to Deut. 19:9). The Talmud (Brachot 6a) says that if someone comes regularly to shul and one day is absent, God inquires as to his absence, and if he has no acceptable excuse, he is punished. The person who never attends shul is not scrutinized in the same manner, for he has never exhibited the capacity to attend regularly.
We can now understand why the Torah separated between the eager departure of the Jewish people from Sinai and their complaints about the swift pace at which they were moving. When the Jewish people ran to avoid a proliferation of additional mitzvot, God observed, "My children, if you have the energy to run from Mount Sinai, let us harness that energy and direct your running to your final destination, Israel."
Immediately the Jewish people complained that they lacked the strength and stamina to run. That was the ultimate self-condemnation - inconsistency. To run from Torah you have the stamina, and yet to run to Israel you lack that same capacity. To minimize the inconsistency involved, the Torah distinguished between these two episodes.
THE LETTER 'NUN'
The letter nun represents faithfulness and consistency (Talmud - Shabbos 31a). The inverted nuns, therefore, represent inconsistency and self-contradiction.
The two verses set off by the inverted nuns describe the antidote to that inconsistency. When Moses saw the Cloud of Glory begin to ascend and depart, signaling God's desire that the Jewish people resume their journey, he proclaimed "Arise, God." This proclamation was a confirmation of God's will and an expression of Moses' desire to subjugate his desires to God's. Similarly, when the Ark came to rest, Moses again proclaimed, "Return, God...."
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch comments that this parsha marks the end of one epoch of Jewish history and the beginning of another, leading to the sin of the spies and culminating in the destruction of the Temple and exile. The root of all this misfortune was the inability to be consistent in our service of God.
May we strive to correct this flaw so that the inverted nuns are once more made upright, as they are in the ultimate expression of total devotion. Then we will merit two other words that also begin with "be comforted, My nation," with the ultimate Divine redemption.