We find something quite peculiar in the Sefer Torah in this week’s portion. Two verses are enclosed by the Hebrew letter נ nun, turned backwards. This is what it looks like (Numbers 10:35, 36):
35) When the Ark would journey, Moshe said, “Arise Hashem and let Your foes be scattered, let those who hate You, flee from before you.” 36) And when it rested, he would say, “Reside tranquilly, O, Hashem, around the myriad thousands of Israel.”
The holy ark was the first to leave camp and would precede the travelling procession of the Jewish nation by three days. Before it departed on its journey, Moshe would say the first verse, and when it came to rest at the new destination, Moshe would recite the second verse.
Why are these two verses enclosed within the two backwards “nuns?”
Rabbi Judah the Prince quoted in the Talmud (Sabbath 116b) explains that it is to teach us that this section, comprising 85 letters, constitutes a separate book of the Torah, resulting in the Seven Books of Moses! We thus have Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, from the beginning of Numbers until the first backward nun, the two verses enclosed in the nuns, from the second nun until the end of Numbers, and Deuteronomy. The Talmud also learns from this that if a Sefer Torah is partially destroyed or had most of its letters erased, if 85 letters remain intact, the entire Sefer Torah remains holy. The number 85 results from that being the size of the smallest “book” of the Torah. Also, the first verse’s 12 words equal the number of words in the last verse of the Torah, and the second verse’s 7 words equal the number of words in the first verse of the Torah, showing a symmetry with our Sefer Torah.
What is written in this small book of the Torah?
I heard the following explanation from my Rebbe Hagaon Rav Moshe Shapiro זצ”ל .
The small Talmudic tractate called מסכת סופרים , the Tractate of Scribes, comprises the instructions to a scribe on how to write a Sefer Torah. Chapter 6 says:
מסכתות קטנות מסכת סופרים פרק ו
הכותב צריך לעשות שיעור בפתיחה של ויהי בנסע הארון, מלמעלן ומלמטן, שהוא ספר בפני עצמו
The writer must make a sign at the beginning and end of the section ויהי בנסע הארון because it is a complete book of the Torah.
In his commentary to מסכת סופרים called, כסא רחמים , the חיד”א writes:
The Kabbalists have written that that this book of ויהי בנסע is a very large book, like each of the other books of the Torah, but we have merited only these two verses. When the final redemption will come, speedily in our days, we will merit the entire book of ויהי בנסע הארון .
The Torah that we have is the story of the Jewish people; how we were created, and Hashem’s special relationship with us. The Torah represents Hashem’s instructions to us on how we, as His nation, are to fulfill our mission as a nation and as individuals within that nation. It tells of all the special blessings we will merit for keeping the Torah, and the fulfilling and peaceful life that we will enjoy because of it. The Torah also contains the lessons we learned along the way when we stepped out of line.
The book of Bamidbar begins with the Jewish people’s travels to the edge of the land of Israel during which the Jewish nation was the envy of all, as each tribe assumed its specific position around the holy ark signifying its unique role and mission. Then come some of the mistakes that the Jewish people made and the consequences of those mistakes, all of this constituting Hashem’s guidance to us through the Torah. These lessons are an essential part of the Torah, the story of the Jewish nation in their role as Hashem’s nation.
When Moshe died and we entered the land of Israel, the story continued to be written by the prophets starting with Joshua and culminating with the book of דברי הימים written by Ezra and Nechemiah at the beginning of the second Temple. Forty years into the second Temple, however, prophesy stopped.
If the Torah is the story of the Jewish people and their role as Hashem’s nation in the world, then the Torah doesn’t end with the end of prophesy. As we continue our journey as Hashem’s nation into the wilderness of the exile, מדבר העמים , He continues to guide us, and the Torah continues to be written. As we are battered in the stormy seas of the exile, the story of Hashem’s guidance and relationship with us continues. The Torah accordingly continues to be written, but we simply don’t know how to read it.
The Talmudic Sages could understand the Torah of the Jewish nation in the exile and sometimes explained to us the cause and effect of some of our mistakes, and how a certain punishment resulted from a certain sin. But now, we lack that perspective. The Torah is Hashem’s revelation on how He guides His people, which He does continuously! Yet although Hashem continues to speak to us, we can’t understand what He is saying.
The ארון – Holy Ark, contained the tablets of the Ten Commandments and a small Sefer Torah that rested on an interior shelf . These represent the revelation of Hashem’s word to man in this world. Now that the ark is hidden, the Jewish nation has become Hashem’s medium for revelation to the world. The Jewish nation is the Holy Ark.
Thus, the verse stating, “When the Ark would journey,” does not refer solely to the physical Ark. Because the Jewish nation represents the ark, the verse also refers to the Jewish nation’s travels in the wilderness of the nations. These two verses separated by the two nuns are, respectively, the first and last verses of the book of the Torah that chronicles the story of the Jewish Nation as it navigates its way through the wilderness of the exile. This, as theחיד”א revealed, is a very large book, for it comprises the story of over 2,000 years of exile, and how, through Hashem’s guidance, we survived. And, Hashem still writes this book of the Torah every day as He guides us, the Jewish nation of today, on our journey through the exile, struggling to properly represent Hashem and to bring His revelation to mankind.
The ארי ז”ל adds a stunning dimension to this idea. The word ארון – ark reversed spells נורא – awesome. What is the significance of this seeming coincidence?
The esteemed body of 120 prophets and Sages who composed the liturgy of the Siddur that we use today is called אנשי כנסת הגדולה – The Men of the Great Assembly. Rabbi Yehoshua Ben Levi in Tractate Yoma 69b explains to us how they came to be called by this name.
תלמוד בבלי מסכת יומא דף סט/ב
דאמר רבי יהושע בן לוי: למה נקרא שמן “אנשי כנסת הגדולה?” שהחזירו עטרה ליושנה. אתא משה אמר, “האל הגדול הגבור והנורא.” אתא ירמיה ואמר, “נכרים מקרקרין בהיכלו איה נוראותיו.” לא אמר נורא. אתא דניאל אמר, “נכרים משתעבדים בבניו איה גבורותיו.” לא אמר גבור. אתו אינהו ואמרו, “אדרבה! זו היא גבורת גבורתו שכובש את יצרו שנותן ארך אפים לרשעים ואלו הן נוראותיו שאלמלא מוראו של הקדוש ברוך הוא היאך אומה אחת יכולה להתקיים בין האומות.”
Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi said. Why were they called “The Men of the Great Assembly”? Because they returned Hashem’s crown of glory to its original status. How is that? When Moshe described Hashem, he said (Deuteronomy 10:17) “the Great, the Mighty, and Awesome Hashem.” Yirmiyah came later and said, “The gentiles are prancing around in the sanctuary of the Holy Temple! (Yirmiya lived through the destruction of the Temple and was forced into exile) Where is the awe of Hashem?” He omitted the word “awesome” (Jeremiah 32:18). Daniel came and said, “The gentiles are enslaving Hashem’s children! Where is Hashem’s might?” He omitted the word “mighty” (Daniel 9:4). They (the Men of the Great Assembly) came and said, “On the contrary! This is where we see Hashem’s might. He overcomes his desire to wipe out these evil people, and He lets them live! And it is precisely here that we see the awe of Hashem; if not for the awe of Hashem, how could this one tiny nation exist among all the other nations!”
So when they composed the text for the Amidah, they wrote הגדול הגבור והנורא , all three praises of Hashem, just as Moshe did, restoring Hashem’s praise to its former status.
The Men of the Great Assembly identified the awe of Hashem in the existence of the Jewish people among the world’s nations who are trying to destroy us. In the metaphor of our Sages, “How does one helpless lamb continue to exist amongst 70 hungry, salivating wolves, all vying to devour it?” There is only one answer to this question. “How great is its Shepherd!”
Here lies the meaning in the ארי ז”ל . The word ארון backwards spells נורא . The Jewish nation is the Ark, and it is through our very existence that the Awe of Hashem is seen in the world today.
We can now see a deeper meaning in our original verse.
35) When the Ark would journey, Moshe said, “Arise Hashem and let Your foes be scattered, let those who hate You flee from before you.”
This is the first verse of the book of the Torah that describes the Jewish nation’s journey into the wilderness of the exile where there would be many formidable attempts to destroy us. From where we stand today, looking back at the difficult challenges that the Jews have survived, we have no choice but to recognize the awe of Hashem. How Hashem has caused our enemies to flee and has saved us from all of these trials and tribulations, is the substance of this book of the Torah.
We will only be able to read this book when the Mashiach comes. Only then will Hashem open this huge book of our Torah and reveal to us how each of the difficulties that we endured over time was actually an essential part of His promised plan to preserve us in the wilderness of the nations. In retrospect, we will appreciate how everything that Hashem did was essential for our existence.
This is the explanation of my Rebbe Hagaon Rav Moshe Shapiro זצ”ל.
I would like to add the following thought. Who will be included in the narrative of this last mysterious book of the Torah? Who will be the players in the script? In the original Torah, the course of the Jewish people was influenced and molded by the efforts of many great men, like Avraham Avinu, Yitzchak, Yaakov, Moshe, and Aharon. Who will be written in this book of the Torah?
The answer is in a verse in the prophet Malachi, the last prophet. (3:16)
ספר מלאכי פרק ג
טז) אָז נִדְבְּרוּ יִרְאֵי יְדֹוָד אִישׁ אֶל רֵעֵהוּ וַיַּקְשֵׁב יְדֹוָד וַיִּשְׁמָע וַיִּכָּתֵב סֵפֶר זִכָּרוֹן לְפָנָיו לְיִרְאֵי יְדֹוָד וּלְחֹשְׁבֵי שְׁמוֹ
16) Then, those who fear Hashem will speak to each other, and Hashem will listen and write down what they said in the book of memories that is in front of Him, of those fearful of His name and those who try to promote Hashem’s name.
In the exile, it is very difficult to resist the overwhelming allure of the gentile lifestyle that surrounds us. It takes planning and strategy to create an island for Torah, insulated and protected from these influences. The people who involve themselves in trying to keep the Jewish people loyal to their mission, remaining close to the Torah, will be written in this new book of the Torah. When the Mashiach comes, and we can finally see what is written in this book of the Torah, we will know many of the good people featured in the stories. These will be the people who influenced the journey of the Jewish people through the exile, helping them to stay on course.
May we all merit to be written in Hashem’s book of memories, and may we merit to see the fulfillment of the last verse of this small “book:” 36) And when it rested, he would say, “Reside tranquilly, O, Hashem, around the myriad thousands of Israel.” When the Mashiach comes, speedily in our days, we will learn this last book of the Torah.