Last year, for this parasha, I spoke briefly about these two mysterious upside down nuns in Chapter 10, verses 35 and 36. About how Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi, the man who arranged, organized, and composed the Mishnah said that the text between these two nuns should be its own entire book, separating Numbers into two books, bringing the total number of books in the Torah up to seven.
Each of these books has a particularly strong lesson or statement within its first verses. I like to think of that lesson almost as a fugue, a musical term where one theme is expanded on by all the different parts of the orchestra. One of the most prominent examples of a fugue is Beethoven’s seminal 5th Symphony (if you’re reading this, say “da da da Dum” out loud — that symphony).
In this symphony, every group of instruments takes this four note theme and either rephrases it, rearranges it, alters it, or otherwise expands on it. This creates interweaving lines of these four notes, sometimes clashing against each other, sometimes lining up and creating shimmering beauty, sometimes allying to create an even more powerful statement. This musical mechanism drives tension, evolves into resolution, and produces a pattern that resonates in our minds and stays with us. How powerful is this musical tool? Powerful enough that just reading “da da da DUM” is evocative of the entire piece, and enough to get this well known composition ingrained in your mind.
Our Torah was composed in much of the same way. Just as Beethoven’s symphony has a four note theme that builds and grows through the movement, each book has a strong theme outlined in its first verses, which comes around into a fugue in various times. In Genesis, with the creation of the world, it was acceptance of the world and our drive to improve, punctuated with our follies. In Exodus, it was how quickly things can change, with the introduction of the new king who didn’t know Joseph. In Leviticus, it may seem esoteric, but the introduction of sacrifices and then two immediate deaths from the ever vague “strange fire” are merely the introduction of what to do and how not to go astray. Deuteronomy brings accountability.
It seems I left out Numbers.
The first verses of Numbers tells not how to count for each other, but that we should count each other. That we, a people and community, are exactly that. This is a context that is crucial through the entire book and, if you keep it in mind, it can change how you apply parts of the text.
If you take Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi’s suggestion and punctuate the Book of Numbers with this mysterious upside down nun interjection, you end up with two new books. Let’s take a quick look into that.
Between these two nuns is:
So it was, whenever the ark set out, Moses would say, Arise, O Lord, may Your enemies be scattered and may those who hate You flee from You.
And when it came to rest he would say, Repose O Lord, among the myriads of thousands of Israel.
The immediate book, with Moses proclaiming and, I believe, blessing the movement of the Ark, is so short that context is hard to establish. However, I feel it provides depth for the remainder of the books and for the remainder of the Torah.
Last year, I spoke of how I believed these two nuns represented Hashem serving us out of love, and it’s quite fitting that they surround this verse. The Ark was G-d’s dwelling place on Earth, it was where G-d met his people. I say “Moshe blessed”, because “May your enemies be scattered” sounds a lot like “May G-d keep you and protect you,” and many other fatherly biblical blessings.
This shows that if we are to be in a covenant with Hashem, like any functional marriage, it is a partnership. Hashem blesses us and we bless Hashem. If we are to meet G-d on Earth, as in the days of the Ark, we can expect G-d to enjoy our blessings, just as we enjoy his.
If we take this newly expanded relationship and color some parts of the next book with the context it provides, we see Hashem providing a more nuanced protection to Israel when putting words in Balak’s mouth to Balaam. Instead of what initially seems to be blatant manipulation, this context changes it to a gentle conversation in the only way that Hashem can get through to someone.
Even further, in Re-eh, Deuteronomy 13:2-8, ordering death to those that go astray from Judaic monotheism, it changes the context from a jealous god trying to protect what’s his to a cautious god trying to keep a nation from committing adultery against her.
So, if we take out these two bookended inverted nuns, we have a brand new book which can give the remainder of our Torah a different context. But what does that leave the remainder of Numbers, now split in two?
The first verses of this new Numbers 2.0 is of people complaining and Hashem hearing them. The foods they were accustomed to were no longer available and the infamous manna debacle ensued. They felt a terrible craving and those that fully gave into that craving died from its repercussions.
This seems like a fairly strong context for the remainder of Numbers: moderation and self control. We even have mitzvot laid out about taking care of one’s body. But self control goes past that, past food. Later in this very chapter, Miriam is inadvertently cursed, an unfair punishment, but her and Aaron lacked moderation and self control in their words.
Even as soon as the next chapter, we see the ramifications of a lack moderation and self control in the scouts, and how Moses is eventually barred from entering the Holy Land. While that is a drash for a different day, I challenge you to read ahead and see how this new context changes what could be read.
So what am I ultimately saying? There are three ways to read this. One is with the context of communal responsibility, looking out for each other, injected into everything. One is with the idea that we have a reciprocal relationship with Hashem for blessings further coloring how we read onward. Finally, one is with the continued idea that we must take personal moderation and self control to help protect our communities.
The next time we’re confronted with the monotony of manna, even though we may be filled in one way but lacking in another, we can gird ourselves against our nature to complain. We can look inward and figure out how to improve our situation ourselves, rather than complaining about how easy it used to be. The Israelites missed the variety of food and, no doubt, experiences they were used to in Egypt and let themselves go because of their misery. That misery, though, was brought about by losing focus on what was important and what was good.
I hope and pray that we can find the good in our lives, focus on it, and contextualize our experiences with blessings to and from G-d. Shabbat shalom.