Parsha Halacha

Parshat Beha’alotecha

The Mystery of the Inverted Nuns

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There is an upside-down nun (the Hebrew letter נ) preceding a passage in the Torah portion of Beha’alotecha and an upside-down nun following the following verse. Here is the passage:  וַיְהִי בִּנְסֹעַ הָאָרֹן וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה קוּמָה יְהֹוָה וְיָפֻצוּ אֹיְבֶיךָ וְיָנֻסוּ מְשַׂנְאֶיךָ מִפָּנֶיךָ׃ וּבְנֻחֹה יֹאמַר שׁוּבָה יְהֹוָה רִבְבוֹת אַלְפֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל.
“When the Ark was to set out, Moses would say, ‘Arise, O L-rd! May Your enemies be scattered, and may Your foes flee before You!’ And when it halted, he would say: ‘Return, O L-rd, You who are Israel’s myriads of thousands!’”[1]
These two verses come after the description of how the Jewish people traveled from Mount Sinai and before the Jewish people complained about various things.
The Talmud[2] gives two interpretations as to the meaning of these upside-down “nuns.”
1)     Out of Place
Some say that these verses belong in the Torah portion of Bamidbar which discusses the order of how the Jewish people traveled.[3] They are placed here to interpose between two negative stories,[4] that of how they traveled from Mount Sinai like children running away from school[5] and how they complained about their travels (Numbers 11:1).
Although there are many parts of the Torah that are written out of order, it is usually obvious. In this case, however, it is not so obvious, so the nuns were added in order to indicate that it is out of order. In addition, the nuns signify that this section will eventually be moved to where it belongs (see below).[6]
The commentaries point out that it is not unusual to have negative stories grouped together.[7] This case is more significant, however, as without the separation, there would be three consecutive negative stories (leaving Mount Sinai, complaining about the journey, and complaining about the Manna).[8]
There are various interpretations as to why upside-down nuns were chosen to indicate that these verses belong elsewhere.
·        Nun Means Fish
The word nun in Aramaic means fish. As such, the nun before the verses represents the Jewish people who are compared to a fish.[9] The nun is upside down so instead of facing the verse that discusses the Aron Kodesh (holy ark) which contained the Torah, it faces the previous verse which ends with the word הַמַּחֲנֶֽה/”the camp.” This indicates that the Jewish people were focusing on physical pursuits instead of spiritual ones. As such, they were like fish who might, for some inexplicable reason, turn away from the ocean and swim towards dry land instead of swimming towards the ocean as usual.[10] The nun after these verses represents the complaint of the Jewish people in the next section, that they didn’t have enough fish. This nun also alludes to their complaint about the relationships that had become forbidden to them since fish procreate at a very fast pace. As such, the upside-down nun (fish) represents a misguided desire for procreation.[11]
·        50 Paragraphs Back
It has been suggested that the upside nun, which has the numerical value of 50, alludes to the fact that these verses belong 50 paragraphs or parshiyot[12] (sections of the Torah) earlier. Specifically in Numbers 2:17, where it discusses how the Levites, who would carry the Mishkan, traveled. (“And the Ohel Moed, together with the Levite camp, traveled amongst the other camps…”) In other words, the number 50 (nun) is facing back to tell you that this should be 50 sections earlier. The number 50 is reached when counting the paragraph about the Levites traveling, the paragraph of Vayehi Binso’a, and the 48 paragraphs in between.
·        Overturning the Nun of Punishment
The Talmud says[13] that King David left the nun out of Ashrei (i.e., he did not start a verse in Psalm 145 with the letter nun) because nun denotes נפילה nefilah , falling, and signifies the falling of the Jewish people. Thus, the overturned nuns represent that G-d should transform these punishments and negative events and turn them into positive ones.[14]
·        Na’aseh VeNishma Overturned
The two nuns represent the Jewish people’s heartfelt cry of Na’aseh VeNishma (“We will do and we will listen”) which they proclaimed at Mount Sinai. These nuns are turned over at this point to indicate that by “running away” from Mt. Sinai and by complaining the Jewish people were overturning those commitments.[15]
Thirst for Torah Would Preempt the Complaints
By placing this paragraph in between these sections, the Torah is teaching us a lesson. Had the Jewish people not run away from Mount Sinai but would have instead thirsted for more Torah (symbolized by the holy ark), they would not have complained about the travels, the fish, or the Manna. Rather they would have been satisfied with their lot.[16]
Will Move Back
According to Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel,[17] in the Messianic era, this paragraph will be removed from this place and moved back to where it belongs. (That will be a big job for all the sofrim (scribes) at that time!) Although the Jerusalem Talmud says[18] that the Five Books of Moshe will never be nullified, the order will be switched around in this regard.[19]
2)     A Separate Chumash
According to Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi,[20] the upside-down nuns around these two verses indicate that these verses are a chumash of their own. Although there are usually five blank lines in between chumashim, in this case the nuns are there instead since it is such a small chumash.[21]
This follows the opinion that there are seven chumashim corresponding to the seven branches of the Menorah as the verse says,[22] חָצְבָה עַמּוּדֶיהָ שִׁבְעָה – “She has hewn her seven pillars.”
This opinion has halachic ramifications as there are 85 words in this “Chumash.” Based on this, if a Torah scroll is worn out but still has 85 legible letters in it, it has holiness and should be saved from a fire on Shabbat.[23]
Why Nun?
The nuns around this chumash teach us that, despite its small size, this chumash too has within it all of the 50 gates of understanding that exist.[24]
The commentaries ask, what makes the content of these verses so important as to make them “deserving” of being a separate chumash?
·        The Importance of Having Children
The Talmud[25] derives from the verse “Return, O L-rd, You who are Israel’s myriads of thousands” that the Shechinah (Divine Presence) only rests on a minimum of 22,000 Jews. As such, every couple should recognize the importance of every child they bring into the world as each one might be the one that allows the Shechinah to rest among us. This lesson is important enough to be a “chumash” on its own.[26]
·        Loving One’s Fellow Jew
The verse says that Moshe would pray that G-d’s enemies who hate Him be scattered and run away. Rashi says that the enemies of G-d are one and the same as the enemies of the Jewish people. This explains why Rabbi Akiva considered the mitzvah to love your fellow as being a fundamental mitzvah in the Torah as loving a Jew is like loving G-d (and vice versa). This concept is so important that an entire “chumash” is written to teach this lesson![27]

May We Merit to Bring the Shechinah into this World!
Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom UMevorach!

[1] Numbers 10:35 – 36
[2] Shabbat 115b and 116a quoted in Rashi and in other commentaries on the verse
[3] Although this Torah portion also discusses the Jewish people’s travels, these verses, which describe what Moshe would say whenever the Jews traveled, belong in the section that describes the way they would travel regularly (Bamidbar) as opposed to one which describes a specific journey (Beha’alotecha) [Gur Aryeh].
[4] The Talmud refers to these stories as puranut (punishment) because they warranted punishment although we do not find a specific punishment for them leaving Mount Sinai like schoolchidren. It is possible that had they not sinned in these ways, they would have entered the Holy Land immediately (Ramban). This then is their punishment.
[5] Ramban based on Jerusalem Talmud 4:5 and Tosfot D.H. Puranut on Shabbat ibid. Tosfot says that they left in a hurry as they did not want to get any more mitzvot. But see Rashi there.
[6] Chodesh Ha’Aviv by Rabbi Eliezer Papu (author of the Peleh Yo’etz) on Shabbat 115b.
[7] Maharam Shif on Shabbat ibid. See Yevamot 14b
[8] Ramban
[9] The Jews cannot live without the Torah just as fish cannot live outside of water. See Brachot 61a
[11] Ibid
[12] In this context, a parsha refers to a paragraph in the Torah and not to a weekly Torah portion.
[15] Chodesh Ha’Aviv on Shabbat ibid
[16] Ben Yehoyadah on Shabbat ibid
[17] Shabbat ibid
[19] Maharatz Chayut on Shabbat ibid. See there that according to the opinion that one can learn from the placement of the parshiyot (Yevamot 4a), there will be new concepts that will be derived from the new placement of this section.
[20] Shabbat 116a
[21] Chodesh Ha’Aviv
[26] Kli Yakar
[27] Imrei Shaul on Shabbat ibid

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