Community > Jewish Life > Beha’alotcha: When the Ark Set Forth

Beha’alotcha: When the Ark Set Forth

Nechama Leibowitz
reprinted courtesy of the Jewish Agency for Israel Education Department 

And it came to pass, when the Ark set forward, that Moses said, Rise up, Lord, and let thine enemies be scattered; and let them that hate thee flee before thee. And when it rested, he said, Return, O Lord, unto the many thousands of Israel. (10, 35-36)

These verses are enclosed both in Sefer Torah and the printed Pentateuch by two special symbols in the form of a large inverted nun. The Talmud draws attention to this marking:

Our Rabbis taught: “And it came to pass, when the ark set forward, that Moses said ….” The Holy One blessed be He made special markings above and below for this passage. (Shabbat 115b)

What is the explanation of these markings and the meaning of the inverted nun? The Sifrei states that:

It was marked with points above and below.

It may be assumed therefore that the whole of this passage was marked by points from above and below, i.e. from the beginning to the end, the same was as there are individual words in the Torah crowned by dots. This passage then was marked by symbols to denote that it should be pointed. In order that the nun ( the first letter and abbreviation of the Hebrew verb “to point”) should not be mistaken for a letter it was inverted. But what is the significance for enclosing this passage in distinctive marking? We cite here the explanation of Rabbi Judah Hanasi, the editor of the Mishnah:

Because it constituted a book on its own. For R. Shemuel bar Nahmani said in the name of R. Yohanan: “She hath hewn out her seven pillars” (Proverbs 9, 1) – these are the seven books of the Pentateuch; according to whom? According to Rabbi (Judah Hanasi) (Shabbat 116a)

In other words, this passage constitutes a book on it’s own, thus dividing Bamidbar into three books, which, with the addition of the other four books of the Pentateuch makes seven. But it still remains for us to discover the reason for singling out this passage for such special distinction. Let us first study the two verses concerned more closely. Moses’ invocation to the Almighty to “rise up” when the Ark moved forward and to “return” when it rested, giving the impression that it was Moses who determined the journeying and halting of the Ark contradicts what was previously stated that it journeyed only in accordance with the commandment of the Lord. This point is made in the Sifrei on the sidra:

“And Moses said, rise up, Lord”, and another verse says: “At the commandment of the Lord they rested and at the commandment of the Lord they journeyed”. How can these two verses be reconciled? To what may this be compared? To a king who was going on a journey accompanied by his bosom friend. When he resumes his journey he says: I shall not go forward until my friend gives the order, and when he halts he says: I shall not halt until my friend comes along. This reconciles the verses “And Moses said rise up, Lord”, and “At the commandment of the Lord they journeyed…”

This Midrash graphically illustrates the highest degree of communion and closeness between man and his maker, and the complete identity of aim. Hirsch notes that Moses’ invocation: “rise up ” succeeds immediately the act that has been fulfilled, in accordance with the principle expressed by Rabban Gamaliel in Pirkei Avot:

Make His will thy will who are the “enemies” and “them that hate Thee” that are scattered as a result of the divine “rising up?” Here is the answer given by the Sifrei: Can there be enemies of he who spoke and the world came into being? But the verse informs us that whoever hates Israel is as if he hates the Omnipotent. Similarly, it is said (Exodus 15): “and in the greatness of Thine Excellency thou hast overthrown them that rose up against Thee.” Can there be rebels against the Omnipotent? The verse informs us that whoever rises up against Israel it is as if he rose up against the Omnipotent. Similarly, it is stated (Psalms 74,23)”Forget not the voice of Thine enemies: the tumult of those that rise up against Thee continually.” Because of whom? Similarly it is stated (Psalms 83,2)”For lo, Thine enemies make a tumult: and they that hate Thee lift up their heads.” Because of whom? “They have taken crafty counsel against thy people.” And it is also stated (Zecharia 2):”For He that toucheth you toucheth the apple of His eye.” It is not stated “the eye” but “His eye” – of the Omnipotent.

Accordingly the enemies of Israel are synonymous with the enemies of God. Whether we are worthy or not of this title: those bent on our destruction regard us as the standardbearers of truth and justice and the representative of the divine Law. And it is for this reason that they persecute and hate us.

Hirsch, commenting on this passage, that Moses was aware that enemies would rise up against the Torah from the moment that it was given. Its demands for justice and altruism were bound to antagonize aggressors and tyrants and stand in the way of their designs. The Torah’s call to holiness would not only arouse hatred, but also also active persecution.

The concluding verse:” Returned O Lord unto the many thousands of Israel” present a syntactical difficulty. The Hebrew verb: shuv is usually an intransitive verb implying “return,” and yet it is followed by the phrase “many thousands of Israel” as a direct object.

The English translation gets over the difficulty by inserting the preposition “unto” which, however, is not in the Hebrew original. Other commentators have rendered shuv in the transitive sense of “return”(bring back). The commentary Da’at Zekenim paraphrases our verse as follows:

May it be granted that all the thousands and tens of thousands of Israel returned to their place according to their number with none lacking. “Return” is here taken in the sense of “bring back” as in the verse “The Lord will bring back thy captivity.” (Deuteronomy 30, 3).

Others interpret the verb shuv in the sense of “causing to rest”:

Give the myriads of Israel rest that they may be no more disturbed. (Ibn Ezra)

Sforno also takes it in the sense of rest ,but in an intransitive sense:

“Rest O Lord amongst the myriads of Israel” – let Thy presence rest in our midst.

Sforno also explains the numbers, literally :”ten thousand thousands” in its plain sense as referring to the actual figure of Jewish men, women, and children at the time. But Hirsch draws attention to the unusual order of the Hebrew numerical description in which the large figure “ten thousands” precedes the smaller unit “thousand” instead of it reading “a thousand ten thousands” (cf. Genesis 24):”Be thou the mother of thousands of millions”, instead of millions of thousands). He therefore interprets it to refer to the myriads of people who would swell the nation in the future times, in other words the tens of thousands that will be added to the already existing thousands. The verse therefore is a timeless invocation and not limited to the period in the wilderness.

He who rose up to scatter His enemies and remove wickedness from the earth would dwell once more amongst the tens of thousands of His children and followers from all peoples. This passage then which our Sages regarded as a book on its own alludes to the period described by the prophet Zechariah(2,15)in the following manner:

When the ark set forth
And many nations shall be joined to the Lord in that day, and shall be My people and I will dwell in the midst of thee….