Three Wrongs Make a Backwards Nun — By Ben

You may notice something odd about the block of text above. If you have some experience with Hebrew, it surely jumped out at you. But even to the unfamiliar, the two isolated letters on the 5th and 7th line clearly stand out. These are the two famous inverted nuns.

They are placed alone and bookend a single verse almost as if God was using parentheses before it was cool. The other thing to note are the letters themselves. This is how a nun usually appears: נ. In the above scripture, the nuns are upside down and facing backwards.

Within the parenthetical nuns is a verse that reads, “So it was, whenever the ark set out, Moses would say, Arise, O Lord, may Your enemies be scattered and may those who hate You flee from You. And when it came to rest he would say, Rest, O Lord, among the myriads of thousands of Israel.” (Bamidbar 10:35-36) If you go to services regularly you may recognize this verse as what we recite when taking the Torah from the ark. And as nice as it is, saying our enemies will be scattered when Israel moves, has little to do with events of the narrative surrounding it. So what’s it doing there?

The Before and After

The Rabbis say the Jews made three terrible mistakes, one after the other, in the surrounding verses. 1) After camping at Mount Sinai for over a year, Hashem tells the Jews it’s time to go. The Jews proceed to leave. 2) While on their way to Israel, God sets a rigorous pace and the Jews get really tired and want to stop. So God sends a plague of fire among them. 3) After their exhaustion, the Jews, who have been eating nothing but maan (mana) get a craving for meat and complain. At that point Moses throws up his hands and says essentially, I can’t deal with these people anymore.

The Jews do a lot of bad things while in the desert. In fact next week, they’ll do their worst act yet (The sin of the spies). The three things above don’t seem bad at all by comparison. Why is this the straw that breaks Moses’s back and what does the upside down nun parenthetical do to help?

Number 1 – School’s Out

The departing from Mount Sinai doesn’t look problematic at all. God says to leave and the Jews leave. No mention of plague, no mention of complaining. Why are the Rabbis citing this as the first offense? According to the Midrash, the Jews left Mount Sinai in a hurry, just as school children dash out on the last class before summer break. The Gemara specifically says they thought, “If we delay, He may give us more mitzvahs!” When they should have said, “Let’s stay a little longer.”

Okay, so they were a little antsy. Can you blame them? They had been there a whole year. We’ve all been there, whether it was when we were in school, or in training for a job, or even as children trying to use the scissors on our own, there is an urge to move on from that passive learner to active practitioner. It’s when we think we’ve learned enough that we may just miss out on the lessons that are most important. When I was in 7th grade, I learned about something known as “grading on completion.” Meaning that the teachers didn’t grade the homework on whether you got the right answer or not, but if you simply had filled in the blanks. This of course led to me, 10 minutes before class jotting down answers Madlibs style. I distinctly remember writing Yosemite Sam on a history assignment. I justified it at the time saying that I really did know the answers because I listened in class or that I’d study before the test. But what I didn’t realize was that the practice, research, and repetition skills that the homework exercised were just as important if not more so than the midterms and finals. I would have trouble later as this had set a pattern of behavior and a desire for short cuts and expectations of my homework taking minimal time.

The Jews that were eager to leave Sinai, I believe, set a similar precedent.

Number 2 – When Complaining without Complaining is Still Complaining

The people were looking to complain, and it was evil in the ears of the Lord. (Bamidbar 11:1)

Now the Jews are traveling at a rigorous breakneck pace and they just want to slow down. But the language says they were “looking to complain” but didn’t actually complain. They held their tongue. Some might find this honorable. Isn’t the point of the whole religion to let our intellect overrule our impulsive emotions? But God hears their complaints of the heart and punishes them anyway.

Here, however, the issue isn’t about action, but perspective. God is trying to bring them into the land of Israel as fast as possible. But to do that he’s going to need to whip them into shape a little. If you’ve ever had a personal training session, the trainer’s job is to push you beyond where you think your limit is to show you what you are capable of and help make that the norm. Now, no matter how much money you pay, and no matter how good the trainer is, if you don’t really want to be there, you’re wasting your time, sweat, and money. However, if you’ve been struggling for years to get those last 10 pounds off and you finally meet the best trainer in the biz, they’re going to take that desire and skyrocket you to success. Or another way of looking at it, let’s say you’re journeying to America to escape persecution. Are you going to care whether the mattress is too hard or the bread is stale?

With mere days until they enter their homeland, the Jews should have been running faster than God could move His guiding cloud. But instead they focused on their comforts (or lack there of).

Number 3 – Meat vs Milk

The Jews have been eating mana from heaven, a dew like substance that can be baked into cakes and tastes like virtually anything. However, all of a sudden they all have cravings for meat. Moses throws up his hands in frustration. God then sends an abundance of quail, which the Jews eat “unti it comes out their nose and nauseates them.”

To make sense of it, I’m going to focus on a bizarre exchange Moses had with God after the Jews first insist on the meat. I’m going to paraphrase but you can look at the actual back and forth starting with (Bamidbar 11:11).

Moses decries that he is unable to carry the burden of the Jewish people any longer, but the phraseology he uses evokes images of infancy: Did I conceive this entire people? Did I give birth to them, that You say to me, ‘Carry them in your bosom as the nurse carries the suckling. Strong images of nursing (the primary nourishment being milk.) But then when the Jews demand meat, Moses pleads with God saying essentially, how am I going to provide for their desire? Where can I get meat to give all these people? As if he is forgetting he’s talking to God who can make as much meat as He wants. Moses continues: If sheep and cattle were slaughtered for them, would it suffice for them? If all the fish of the sea were gathered for them, would it suffice for them?”

Clearly there’s more going on here than just talk of filet mignon and ribeye. Mixing milk and meat is one of the biggest prohibitions in all of Judaism. Unlike pork, we can’t even benefit monetarily from the mixture. Though I’m not going to go into the specifics of that mitzvah, I do want to explore what they represent.

Milk is an interesting form of sustenance. A mother eats food and digests it and in doing so, creates a pure form of nourishment for the child. The baby doesn’t need to break down milk the way it has to break down solid food. Interestingly enough, infant excrement is viewed differently (categorically/halachically speaking) than it is once the child starts eating solid food. So clearly Judaism views milk as a perfect formula for the child. At this point in the desert, the Jews are eating the mana, a perfect food that tastes like almost anything and according to Midrash, was completely consumed and produced no waste. So to desire meat on some level is less about having a good steak and really about severing a certain connection with God.

The other dimension to the metaphor is that meat isn’t really meat at all. It’s no coincidence that when women are objectified they say they “feel like a piece of meat.” Nor is it coincidental that the sexual desire is referred to as a carnal desire. So when God gives the Jews what they want, they end up eating it until they are sick. What meat in this sense really refers to are the insatiable desires of the body. Whether it is food, sex, or money, these desires are never satisfied and if left unchecked we indulge in them until our destruction. Moses realizes this and feels he has failed as a leader. No matter how much Torah he teaches them, no matter how much Godliness he brings down, no matter how nourishing and fulfilling a holy life offers, the nation will still yearn for their insatiable cravings.

Give Me A Break

After parsha Behaaloscha, the Jews will have a series of “falls”. Next week, the sin of the spies, after that Korach’s rebellion, then Moses will make his mistake which bars him from entering the land of Israel. Finally, the wicked prophet Bilam will get the women of Moab to seduce them. It’s a downward spiral that caps off this generation until the story picks back up with the next generation in the book of Devarim 38 years later.

That word, fall, in Hebrew is נפילה or nephila. The first letter of which is a nun נ. That’s the first explanation for the added verse. That this is the place where the descent of the generation started.

The next reason is that the numerical value of nun is 50. The rabbis say that if you go back 50 parshiyos (Torah sections) you end up in a section where it talks about the Levites traveling with the portable Temple. The rabbis say this special verse belongs there but is moved to this section. Why? That’s the 50 thousand dollar question.

There is a concept in Judaism that when you do a behavior three times it creates a sort of oath (neder). Say, you start learning three times, it’s now a set habit which carries a halachic obligation to continue. Another side of it is that when we go off track, the first time we “sin” it’s a major dilemma. The second time we sin, it’s still a struggle, but less so. The third time we sin it is as if it were a permitted activity. Which ever way you look at it, the Torah wants to break the three “falls” of the Jewish people with the inserted verse.

So why this verse of all verses? Two actions are described, “Rise, Hashem to disperse enemies,” and ” Come to rest, Hashem among Israel.” Ultimately this whole section is a progression of the Jews pulling away from God to pursue other desires. We all go through a constant push and pull in a similar way. Whether it is letting our mind wander when we are praying or contemplating talking about someone behind their back (lashon hara). We all are going to trip up sooner or later. But if we stop ourselves after the first or second time, before we indulge to the point of sickness, we’ll have done an exceptional teshuvah. So remember, even if we’ve fallen once or even twice, if we can reorient ourselves to rise up, from the fall and welcome God back to rest among us, we can avoid major disaster and get ourselves back on track.

This post is written in the merit of the refuah shlema of Noah Michael ben Reiza Chaya.

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