This week’s Torah portion, B’haalot’cha, begins with the instructions for the lifting up of “the lamps,” haneirot, to illuminate the Tabernacle. The initial letter of the word, “lamp,” neir, is nun. This same letter, nun, also marks the portion’s most distinctive passage in Numbers 10:35–36. These two hard-to-understand verses describe the movement of the Ark:
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!
In the Torah scroll, these two verses are surrounded at each end by an inverted nun. (An inverted nun also appears multiple times in Psalm 107.) These special characters can be found in every known Torah scroll, old or new. And, the special nature of this eighty-five letter passage was noted, and its significance debated, in the Babylonian Talmud. In Shabbat 115b, we read: “The Holy One, Blessed be, made marks on this passage, above and below.” Marks above the letters are found in several places in the Torah (for example, the dots above the word “kissed” in Genesis 33:4). The inverted nun is the remnant of a very old tradition to indicate that this small section of Torah is not quite right. Sifrei, a midrashic collection about the Book of Numbers from the same time as the Talmud, specifically says that there dots above and below each letter in this passage. By the time of the discussions recorded in the Talmud, the tradition of treating this passage in a special way was firmly established, but no one knew why!
Rabbi Y’hudah HaNasi, the compiler of the Mishnah, taught that these two verses were a book of the Torah unto themselves (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 115b–116a). While we (and his second century c.e. contemporaries) count five books of the Torah, Rabbi Y’hudah suggested that the Book of Numbers should be divided into three individual books: the first ten chapters, these two verses, and the balance of the Book of Numbers. These three books, together with the other four, would constitute a seven-volume Torah. This view was supported by a verse from Proverbs, “Wisdom has built her house, She has hewn her seven pillars” (Proverbs 9:1). In later biblical texts, “wisdom” was commonly understood to be a reference to Torah; if wisdom, that is, Torah, had “seven pillars,” how did these correlate to just five books? Rabbi Y’hudah HaNasi renumbered the books of the Torah and counted seven. What was so distinctive about these verses that merited them being considered as an entirely separate book? Rabbi Y’hudah does not say. Some ancient commentators suggest that these two verses are all that survives from a now lost book of prophetic teachings of Eldad and Medad; in Numbers, Chapter 11, Eldad and Medad are two unauthorized prophets in the Israelite camp.
More intriguing to me is an explanation brought in the Talmud: “The Holy One placed marks above and below this passage to indicate that it is out of place.” It’s as if God realized that the Torah still needed some editing and highlighted this passage for later revision, but just never got around to it! What else is unfinished, incomplete, or out of place?
The very idea that the Torah is a less than ideal and perfect document contradicts much of what our tradition teaches about the centrality of Torah. Personally, I love the verses from Psalm 19, which conclude the Torah service:
God’s Torah is perfect, reviving the soul;
God’s teaching is sure, making wise the simple. . .
(Psalm 19:8 in Miskhan T’filah: A Reform Siddur, ed. Elyse Frishman [New York: CCAR Press, 2007] p. 375)
The psalmist’s words are true—if we understand Torah in its fullest and richest meaning. The Talmud’s observation, “This section is out of place,” is an invitation from our spiritual heritage to engage in the careful and lovingly critical reading of the Torah. Judaism and the Torah tradition’s self-reflective and self-critical stance is, in my opinion, one of the most distinguishing and wonderful aspects of our tradition. The Jewish reading of sacred scripture is not troubled by our own realization that something appears “out of place;” this awareness is the opening to a creative midrashic reading or, in other places, the wrestling that is at the core of our identity as the descendants of Jacob.
In his wonderful book, People of the Book, Moshe Halbertal argues persuasively that a core moment in Judaism is the transference of authority from the Torah’s divine inspiration (“And God spoke . . .”) to rabbinic interpretation (see People of the Book [Cambridge, Mass., 1997]). There are several Talmudic legends in which God declines to answer halachic questions posed by Moses’s successors; when Joshua tries to learn what he once heard from Moses and has since forgotten, the reply, quoting from the Torah (Deuteronomy 30:11–12) is: “this Instruction which I enjoin upon you this day . . . is not beyond reach. It is not in the heavens . . . ” (see Halbertal, p. 21). The Torah’s perfection, its completeness and value, are found not in the scroll itself; as in ourselves and so much of our world, there are things that are “out of place.” All the same, we ground ourselves in Torah—in its words, in its interpretations, and perhaps most importantly of all, in our continuing wrestling with its teachings as understood by prior generations, by the various interpretative communities that we are part of, and by our own ever-emerging understanding. We come to realize that in the premessianic world in which we live, even that which is most perfect remains incomplete and in need of tikkun, as noted below:
Maybe God and perfection are at the end and not at the beginning. Maybe it is a growing world and a growing humanity and a growing God, and perfection is to be achieved, and not something to start with (Harry Slonimsky, “On Being a Religious Person,” Essays [Hebrew Union College Press, 1967] quoted in Mishkan T’filah: A Reform Siddur, ed. Elyse Frishman [New York: CCAR Press, 2007] p. 587).
Another interesting thing for moderns to note about the introductory verses of Parashat B’haalot’cha is that though most of the details of the wilderness sanctuary sound very foreign to us, the candelabrum of which the passage speaks is familiar. The old Jewish Publication Society (JPS) translation calls it a “candlestick,” and the new JPS renders it “lampstand.”* For contemporary Jews, the Hebrew might be clearer: it is “menorah.”
We are apt to think of Chanukah when we hear the word menorah, which for us has become an English word. This menorah (Numbers 8:2 ff) however, had seven branches, three on each side of a central stem. It is a Shabbat menorah with seven “lamps,” neirot for seven days of the week, as described in detail in Exodus 25:31–39.
The nine-branch Chanukah design was borrowed from the Shabbat design. In Exodus, and now again in Numbers, the Torah stresses that the menorah must be made of pure gold. Metallurgists suggest pure gold would have been too soft, and skeptics have noted that even if gold was not quite as expensive in antiquity as it is today, the cost of such a large piece—not inlaid with gold like the Ark, but entirely of gold—would have been astronomical!
That further demonstrates the wisdom of the commentary above. We need not “sweat the details” of every line in Torah. The issue is what is being taught, not whether the text is—as my fundamentalist neighbors like to say—“inerrant.” The menorah, designed for beauty, survives thousands of years later. To say that the original was made of gold is to say that it represented the best our ancestors could imagine bringing before God.
We, too, design our sanctuaries to be beautiful and should bring to them—in our behavior as well as the physical environment—only our best.
*(see The Holy Scriptures [Philadelphia: JPS, 1955], p. 189; JPS Hebrew-English Tanakh [Philadelphia: JPS, 1999], p. 300; and W. Gunther Plaut, ed., The Torah: A Modern Commentary, rev. ed. [New York: URJ Press, 2005] p. 925)
B'haalot'cha, Numbers 8:1–12:16
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 1,075–1,100; Revised Edition, pp. 950–973;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 843–868