Shout for joy . . . for on that day many nations will attach themselves to God . . . (Zechariah 2:14-15)
Why is it so difficult to journey from a place of self to a place of other? Why are we so afraid as a society and as individuals to lower our shields and swords, and pick up pruning hooks in order to plant a world that overflows with grapevines and fig trees? Would that not make us all shout for joy? And if peace eludes our world, will you also allow it to elude you?
The utopian vision for community, expressed by the Prophet Micah thousands of years ago, called for a day at some point in the future when all people would gaze with pleasure upon God's house and declare, "Hey, let's go up there, to the house of the God of Jacob, that the Holy One may instruct us to follow God's ways and we may walk in God's paths!" Nowadays even traffic can prevent folks from wanting to go up to the house of God. Any number of obstacles can deny us the time to vision a better world for ourselves, much less for others. It is not that we do not share in the dream of peace--a time when all of us together would find some grass in a park and sit down under some shady trees, and "none shall be made to feel afraid" (Micah 4:1). Is it just that we are all too busy?
There are obstacles. First and foremost is that, as Jews, we have enemies. Who and what are our adversaries? Rabbi Cathy L. Felix writes, "foes of Israel, of the Jewish people as a whole, but also individuals, situations, and even psychological conflicts that block our emotional and spiritual growth." 1
This week our Torah portion, B'haalot'cha, provides us with a peculiar scribal anomaly not found anywhere else in the Torah, which is meant to comfort and encourage us as we seek our goals. Set apart by two upside-down Hebrew-letter nuns are two verses that ask for God's help in overcoming obstacles as a community and as individuals. These nuns act like parentheses. What do these self-contained verses say?
When the Ark was to set out, Moses would say:
"Advance, O Eternal One!
May Your enemies be scattered,
and may Your foes flee before You!"
And when it halted, he would say:
"Return, O Eternal One,
You who are Israel's myriads of thousands!"
These two verses are a traveler's prayer over space and time. Whenever the Israelites began their journey, the Ark was lifted and Moses would beseech God for help that the people would triumph over all obstacles that might impede their safe passage. And when the Israelites reached their new destination, they would set down the Ark, and Moses would thank God and ask for divine protection while they remained at their new location.
It was these parenthetical nuns that separate out these verses that perplexed ancient Rabbis. Like two chairs lifted at a wedding-celebration hora, these nuns, and the prayer they contain, encourage us to feel safe before, during, and even after our experiences are complete. During the Mishnaic period, Rabbi Y'hudah HaNasi suggested that the bracketed verses actually created a separate book.2 This book, consisting of only two verses, would then divide the prior and following sections of Numbers into two separate books as well. So the Torah would consist not of five books, but seven, like the seven-branched menorah introduced at the start of the portion. He thought this helped explain the verse in Proverbs 9:1: "Wisdom has built her house; she has set up its seven pillars." We are meant to still feel the thrill of sacred enthusiasm that animated our ancestors when we hear these verses chanted, as they are traditionally used at the opening and closing of the Ark when the Torah is read.
In our weekly parashah, we also read that the Children of Israel are commanded to travel away from the mountain of God. In doing so, instead of marching for just a day or two, they journeyed nonstop for three days. Like the time I asked my son, "what's your favorite part of school?" and his emphatic response was, "dismissal," the Children of Israel behaved, according to one midrash, like children who quickly run away from school in case their teacher might call them back! (Sifrei, Numbers 84)
How easy it will be to read these words and then quickly continue on with your day. Instead, you might ask yourself what you can do to separate out some time today to help others. How might you best tend to your own peace? What are the various obstacles that stop your community from being the one you want it to be? And how might you help it rise above them? What prayer might help in achieving your goals?
Peace. It is an idea whose time will come. Like our prophets who predicted it would, its destination still lies in the future. What have you done to further the cause of peace in the world? In your own life?
- Rabbi Cathy L. Felix, Mekor Chaim, d'var on B'haalot'cha, http://www.jewishfederations.org/local_includes/downloads/5810.pdf
- See Nehama Leibowitz, Studies in BaMidbar, (printed at Jerusalem: Haomanim Press, n.d.), p. 89; also see, W. Gunther Plaut, gen. ed., The Torah: A Modern Commentary, Revised Ed. (NY:URJ Press, 2005), p. 960
Rabbi Philip "Flip" Rice is co-senior rabbi at Congregation Micah in Nashville, Tennessee, where he shares the pulpit with his wife, Rabbi Laurie Rice.