Saturday, June 17, 2006

DVAR TORAH: B'halotecha

Within this portion are some of the most famous lines in the Torah. The bookends to the Torah service, that which begins it: ויהי בנסע הארן ויאמר משה קומה ה' ויפצו איביך וינסו משנאיך מפניך and that which ends it: ובנחה יאמר שובה ה' רבבות אלפי ישראל. However, these lines, found in Bamidbar/Numbers 10:35-36 have bookends of their own. They appear as inverted nuns
I created an image of an inverted nun and took liberties with it such as turning it upside down with its crown on the bottom and a flourish on the top, which I plan on doing should I decide to write a Torah scroll. Compare this to my normal nun.

I may have subconsciously called them bookends because they are literally book-ends. According to the Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Shabbat 115b, this scribal oddity is there for a reason and that this mystery of the Torah could be that either this is a completely separate book of the torah, making these two lines book two of Numbers and that which follows book three, making seven total books of the Torah as opposed to the accepted numbering of five or that this was put out of place. The latter calls in to question the perfection of the torah, but this may be one of those things, similar to the dots above some of the letters of the Torah scroll which may just be one of those Teyku issues, that which will be answered by Elijah the Tishbite in the time of the Messiah.

Notwithstanding the issue of their placement and their surrounding inverted nuns, these two verses themselves cause me a bit of confusion with their translation. Many like to translate it as "when the Ark was lifted", but it could also be "when the Ark travelled". This passive versus active has come into my mind as an issue of what is the reason that we stand when the Torah is lifted today for Hagba. I have argued that it is not that the Torah is no longer at rest, but that there is a person lifting the Torah and we stand for them. They could be fidgiting with the Torah while seated but once they have begun to stand even with the Torah secure on their right bosom, we stand.

The other verse, which said that when it rested, [Moses] said: שובה ה' רבבות אלפי ישראל. Not only is the construction a little strange, but what is Rivevot Alfei Yisrael. JPS translates it as "unto the ten thousands of the families of Israel". Christian versions such as the King James give it as "the many thousands of Israel". First of all, this appears to refer to fighters, in which it wouldn't be in the thousands (אלף) nor the tens of thousands (רבבה), but 600,000 able-bodied men aged 20 and up. Taking Rivevot Alfei as 10000 x 1000 would equal 10 million. However, I feel that the awkward construction refers to putting it to a mathematical power, and as I can't think math right now, it is either 10000 to the 1000 power or 1000^10000. I typed both in to my old scientific calculator and both returned an overflow. It's bigger than a googol or a googolplex! I have heard this referred to as God's celestial army. Why is God known as ה' צבקותAdonai Tzvaot? Notice that I didn't spell Tzvaot correctly in the Hebrew because, like the Tetragrammaton which I changed the spelling of, Tzvaot is also an Ineffable Name of God which is not supposed to be spelled out. It is always translated as the Lord of Hosts. What does this mean? God is the Chief Maître d'? No, a host is an army. The Hosts refer to God's Heavenly Army. God is the Commander in Chief of the Heavenly Army. If my assumption is correct, then there are 1000^10000 or 10000^1000 beings that are members of this army. This calls in to question why little Israel has never lost a war. Many modern siddurim have special "Al HaNisim" prayers for Yom Haatzmaut and Yom Yerushalayim, attributing it to God that we won these victories against all odds. Our tiny infant (double-meaning here) armed forces were able to singlehandedly defeat seven established nations. Perhaps it was not singlehanded and perhaps we had another army watching our back (and I'm not talking about America). Yep. Thousands of Tens of thousand (Or Thousands of Myriads as some siddurim are wont to translate (why did I just say "wont"?))...

Regardless of the reasoning, the Rabbis who composed our services treasured these two verses and used them as the scriptural verses that are the beginning and end of all services in which we centralize the Torah itself. So whether you lift up the torah and say חזק חזק ונתחזק a couple of times tomorrow (nobody actually does that...) or just note the oddity of those nuns, realize the importance and mystery of these verses.

And if you're in Israel, this doesn't apply to you. Instead enjoy reading about the worst mistake the Jews ever made, the sin of the Ten Spies in parashat Shlach Lecha which we Diasporites will discuss next week.

Shabbat Shalom,


1 comment:

Kaneblai said...

There's another place where rivevot and alfey appears on the same verse:
Devarim 33:17, ..."rivevot Efrayim vehem alfey Menasheh"..., if you link these two passage, a new wonderful meaning arrives.

Shabbat Shalom,