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Behaalotecha – The Alternate Storyline in the Book of Numbers

Jun 1, 2023

There is a strange and unique phenomenon in the middle of this week’s Torah portion. Two verses, Numbers 10:35-36, are written between an unusual marking in the Torah. Two backward and upside-down nuns are actually written into the traditional text of the Torah, one before and one after these two verses. (see accompanying image)

To understand the meaning behind these strange markings in the Torah, let’s first look more carefully at these two verses.

“When the Ark traveled Moses proclaimed, ‘Rise up, O God, and Your enemies will scatter and let those who hate You flee from before You.’ And when it came to rest, he said, ‘Return O God the myriads of Israel’s thousands.’” – Numbers 10:35-36

In the Talmud, the Jewish sages discussed the strange phenomenon of the two backward nuns:

The Sages taught: It is stated: “And when the Ark traveled Moses proclaimed: Rise up, God, and Your enemies will scatter and let those who hate You flee from before You.” The Holy One, Blessed be He, made signs in the Torah for this portion, before and after it, in order to say that this is not its place, Rabbi Judah says: It is not for that reason that signs were inserted. Rather, the signs are there because this portion is considered a book unto itself. – Talmud Shabbat 116a

Upside down and backward letters? A separate book? What does all of this mean?

Perhaps we can understand this peculiarity by answering a different question. What event is described by these verses? According to these two verses, when the people of Israel traveled, the ark would precede them. Moses would utter this declaration, thus causing the enemies of Israel to scatter and flee. Moses would then make a second declaration when the Ark came to rest.

When did this ever occur? Numerous wars between Israel and other nations are recorded in the Torah. There is no conflict that appears to fit the bill. What exactly is being described here?

The book of Numbers leading up to this point describes the ideal setup of the camp of Israel with the flags of each of the tribes, the inauguration of the Tabernacle, and protocol for travel. The final verse immediately preceding our two verses describes the beginning of the travel of the nation of Israel to the land of Canaan to take possession of it.

In the chapters that follow this two-verse section we read a series of disturbing stories. The nation of Israel complains about the manna from heaven. The spies sent by Moses return with a negative report about the land, leading the nation to lose faith. Soon thereafter we read about the tragic rebellion led by Korach and the plague that followed it.

It goes without saying that had everything gone as planned, these problematic episodes would not have occurred. Consider how the story of Israel was supposed to unfold. After the aforementioned setting up of the camp and ceremonies inaugurating the Tabernacle that open the book of Numbers, the children of Israel were supposed to march northward into the promised Land. God, as promised earlier in the Torah, was going to cause the enemies of Israel to flee before them. The conquest of the land was meant to be miraculous and effortless.

Instead, spies were sent. Trust in the almighty hand of God wavered. The decree of forty years in the desert followed. After forty years, the next generation would conquer the land through natural military means, rather than by overt miracles.

The two verses between the backward nuns are most remarkable because they describe something that never happened. They describe the defeat of Israel’s enemies by miraculous means, caused by Moses making a declaration as the ark traveled before the people.

Now we can understand the cryptic comments of the rabbis in the Talmud. These two verses are not in the right place. Meaning, they record an event that never actually happened. They are a separate book. 

When I was growing up there were books labeled as “Choose your own adventure.” In these books, the reader would have the option of deciding which direction the plot would take by making choices at critical junctures in the story. If choice A, turn to page X. If choice B, turn to page Y. 

I’d like to suggest that the purpose of these two verses is to remind us of the unrealized ideal end of the story. At this point in the book of Numbers, the children of Israel, led by Moses and the ark, were meant to march northward into the land, as their enemies miraculously scattered. Instead, they chose the path of rebellion, fear, and loss of faith. The two verses are written between the backward nuns – a kind of ancient parentheses – for this reason. They remain in the text of the Torah to remind us of the ideal that could have and should have been realized.

In our lives we make many decisions. After making a wrong turn, we live with the mistakes that we make, and we cope within the new imperfect reality we have chosen. We must remember that God gives us the opportunity to go back and fix our mistakes.

We can return, repent, and start fresh. Just as these two verses were included in the Torah although they never happened, many of our lost opportunities can be revived and renewed and we dare not think that they are gone forever. As the Talmud records later in the discussion of the backward nuns.

Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel says: In the future, this portion will be uprooted from here, where it appears, and will be written in its proper place. – Talmud Shabbat 116a

Rabbi Pesach Wolicki is Executive Director of Ohr Torah Stone’s Center for Jewish-Christian Understanding and Cooperation and cohost of the Shoulder to Shoulder podcast

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