THE SEVEN BOOKS OF MOSES
This week, we are into Beha’alotcha, the third sidra of the fourth book of the Torah, the book of Numbers or Bemidbar. Yet there is a passage in the Talmud (Shabbat 116a) that states that there are not just five books of the Torah, but seven. The extra two are found in this week’s sidra.
If you look inside a Sefer Torah, you will see that two verses, 10:35-36, are enclosed by two inverted nuns.
The verses are very familiar. They are said whenever the Ark is opened to take out the Sefer Torah and to put it back.
Whenever the ark set out, Moses said, “Rise up, Lord! May your enemies be scattered; may your foes flee before you.” Whenever it came to rest, he said, “Return, Lord, to the countless thousands of Israel.
The two inverted nuns frame the verses like brackets in a text. Thus from the beginning of Numbers to 10:34 is book four of the Torah. Numbers 10:37 to the end of Numbers is book six of the Torah. Devarim is book seven and book five comprises Numbers 10:35 and 10:36.
What is the significance of a ‘book’ comprising only two verses, and why these two verses?
Rabbi J B Soloveitchik explains that we see from the context of these verses, the history of the Children of Israel could have been different.
In this week’s sidra we read how the Israelites celebrated their second Passover, a year after they left Egypt. Those who impure, were granted an opportunity, a month later, to bring the Passover sacrifice in the month of Iyar. The people had been counted so that military preparations could be made. The order of the tribes on the march was set out. The silver trumpets for summoning the people to assembly and battle were introduced. Reading the sidra, one can almost hear the drum roll, in anticipation of a triumphal march to the land of Israel. But then, tragedy struck. The people started complaining about their food, saying they were better-off in Egypt. By the end of the sidra we have Miriam speaking negatively about her brother, Moses. The failure of the mission of the Spies in next week’s portion is almost prefigured in this week’s sidra, as we see a people who have lapsed from a confident nation advancing to its promised land to a squabbling group of former slaves.
Says Rabbi Soloveitchik, the framed verses, represent the first and last verses of a book that could have been written. It would have been a book of triumph. A book that would have described the successful entry of the people to Israel leading directly to the ultimate redemption. We are left with the bookends, which also challenge us: Are we writing the best possible book of our own lives?