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The Unfinished Book

Be'halot'cha (Numbers 8-12 )

by Rabbi Ari Kahn

When the Ark traveled, Moses said: 'Arise God! Scatter your enemies, and let those who hate you flee from in front of you. And when the Ark rested, he would say 'Return God the myriad of thousands of Israel!' (Numbers 10:35-36)

This week's Torah portion contains an idiosyncrasy which is unique in the Bible – the two verses cited above are enclosed, as if in brackets, by letters written upside down on either side. The letters which are written upside down in every Torah scroll are nuns, and the impression which they leave is that these verses are written parenthetically.

The Talmud and Midrash provide an explanation:

This section has signs above and below in order to inform you that this is not the proper place. (Shabbat 115b-116a)

According to the Talmud these verses are indeed parenthetical, inasmuch as they were extricated from their proper context and placed here.

The Talmud makes a suggestion which seems to fly in the face of the basic teachings of Judaism.

Generally, we find different opinions among the various Biblical commentators regarding the proper sequence of the events recorded in the Torah (or the more basic question of whether there is any sequence at all). Be that as it may, even according to the opinion that the Torah does not record events in sequence, it is curious that specifically in this instance the Torah itself would leave a mark in order to indicate the "emendation."

The Talmud, however, goes even further when it makes a suggestion which seems to fly in the face of one of the most basic teachings of Judaism.

Rabbi Meir said: "It is not from God [these signs for moving the section from its proper place] rather because it is considered a book unto itself." Whom does he (Rabbi Meir) rule like? Like the teaching of Rabbi Shmuel bar Nachman in the name of Rav Yochanan: "These are the seven books of the Torah. [Wisdom has built her house] she has hewn out seven pillars. (Proverbs 9:1)" (Shabbat 116a)

The seven "pillars of wisdom" in the Book of Proverbs refer to the seven books of the Torah. This reference does present somewhat of a difficulty to those of us who know of only the Torah as the Five Books of Moses (hence its name Chumash, from the word for "five")!

The Midrash asks:

Are there not five [Books of the Torah]? (B'reishit Rabbah 64:8)

And then the Midrash explains that are, indeed, seven books:

  1. Genesis (Bereisheet in Hebrew)
  2. Exodus (Shmot)
  3. Leviticus (Vayikra)
  4. Numbers (Bamidbar) up to but not including these two verses
  5. These two verses
  6. The rest of Numbers (Bamidbar)
  7. Deuteronomy (Devarim)

To say that the Book of Numbers should be divided into two sections might perhaps be understandable – even if we were to lose the familiar "five books" formula in the process. But how can two isolated verses be considered a "book" by any stretch of the imagination?

We must point out that the approach which opines that these two verses form a separate book are neither singular nor antinomian. The Mishna, while discusses the ritual sanctity of scripture, teaches that any part of Torah which is erased but retains a minimum of 85 letters,(exactly the number in the demarcated section in this week's Torah portion), has holiness, for a "book" remains (Yadayim 3:5).

The section from the Talmud cited above, which introduced the notion of seven books, was the continuation of a question which the Talmud grappled with, namely the type of scripture that may be saved in the event of a fire breaking out on Shabbat. In that case, as well as in the discussion of ritual sanctity of scripture here, the conclusion is that the minimum required to be considered a "book" is 85 letters.

Our understanding that there are but Five Books of Moses is somewhat shaken.

We see, then, that these two verses are considered for some legal issues to be a book unto themselves. Our understanding that there are but Five Books of Moses is somewhat shaken.

In order to understand this better, we must take a closer look at the context in which these verses appear.

As we begin reading Parshat Be'halot'cha, we sense that the Children of Israel are nearing their goal – the Promised Land. The Torah has been received, the Tabernacle has been completed and consecrated, all seems in place for the glorious, momentous march.

But then something tragic happens. They don't go. This is what happens instead:

First, Aaron is commanded regarding the lighting of the Menorah. Aaron, of course, follows the Divine command:

Aaron did that (which he was commanded), lighting the candles to illuminate the Menorah as God had commanded Moses. (Numbers 8:3)

Next comes the section of sanctifying the Levites:

And God spoke to Moses saying. Take the Levites from the midst of the Children of Israel and sanctify them. (Numbers 8:5,6)

What follows next are two sections which revolve around the celebration of Passover. Moses is commanded to repeat the rites which were performed in Egypt on the eve of the Exodus. A whole year had passed, and the practices which were instituted in Egypt on that night will now be recalled. For those who were ritually impure and therefore could not partake of the Pascal offering, there is to be a second chance to bring the offering, in the following month – on the 14th day of the Second Month they would have their Passover.

Chronology of Events

At this juncture it is important to understand the chronology of events thus far:


  • The Jews leave Egypt on the 15th day of Nissan, the first month.
  • Fifty days later, on the 7th day of Sivan, the third month the Jews receive the Torah at the foot of Mount Sinai.
  • Forty days later on the 17th day of Tammuz, the fourth month they sin with the Golden Calf.
  • Moses prays for the nation and is invited to ascend Mount Sinai for the second time on the 1st day of Elul, the sixth month.
  • Forty days later, on Yom Kippur, the 10th day of Tishrei, the seventh month, Moses comes down from Sinai with the second set of tablets, and with the instructions to build the Tabernacle; they collect the materials and start to build.


  • On the 1st day of Nissan in the second year, the Tabernacle is complete.
  • The Twelve Tribes, represented by their leaders, bring offerings, which brings us to the 13th day of Nissan.
  • The Jews will now observe Passover. Those who are unable to partake will have another opportunity on the 14th of Iyar, the second month.
  • The second Passover is observed.

Now what? How would the people know when it was time to march on?

A Special Sign

The Torah reports a Divine sign:

"On the day when the Tabernacle was erected a cloud enveloped it ... and in the evening what appeared to be fire (enveloped the Tabernacle] until the morning. When the cloud would lift ... the people would travel, and in the place which the cloud would stop, there the people would stop as well. (Numbers 9:15-17)

One last law was taught prior to the beginning of the journey from Sinai – the trumpets would be used in order to give commands regarding the march.

All is in place. The march begins:

In the Second year, on the 20th of the second month, the cloud arose ... The children of Israel thus began their travels from the Sinai desert (until) the cloud rested in the Paran Desert. This was the first journey; by the word of God, via Moses. (Numbers 10:11-13)

The march begins, but where are they going? Moses provides the answer when he invites his father-in-law (or, according to some, his brother in-law) to join them:

We are traveling to the place of which God has said 'I am giving to you.' Join us ... (Numbers 10:29)

Moses speaks in present tense, "We are traveling," because he believes that the Jews are about to enter the Promised Land! He believes that the promises of God to our forefathers are about to come to fruition. The future is now. Let the trumpets blow – let the conquest begin!

The father-in-law declines, and the Jews continue alone. The destiny of the Jews and other peoples of the world would not merge as of yet. They will travel a different road; their path to Jerusalem will be more circuitous; they will have to wait for the End of Days.

The Jews are headed directly for Israel. But, as we know, the Jews do not enter into the Land of Israel immediately. They travel their own circuitous route for the next forty years. Moses is apparently mistaken; the time has not arrived. He himself will never enter the Promised Land. His mission will end prior to the conquest. He will not see the beauty of the Temple in Jerusalem.

For Moses, like so many Jews in history, the Promised Land will remain just that – a promise.

The Book of Conquest

It is at this point that the two "parenthetical" verses appear.

When the Ark traveled, Moses said: 'Arise God! Scatter your enemies, and let those who hate you flee from in front of you. And when the Ark rested, he would say 'Return God the myriad of thousands of Israel!' (Numbers 10:35,36)

What is it about these two verses, these 85 letters, which cause our Sages to see an entire book? The answer is obvious: these verses represent the book which was never written, the book relating the conquest spearheaded by Moses, fought by God. These verses represent the book which was to have been, but wasn't.

The key to understanding this teaching comes from a lecture by Rav Yosef Solovietchik and is based on a number of short comments by the Sforno on these verses:

When the Ark traveled ... [This means] to enter the Land of Israel. 'Arise God! Scatter you enemies ...' Had it not been for the spies [see Parshat Shlach] they would have entered Israel without battle, for the inhabitants would have fled.

The Sforno is explaining what Moses would have said upon entering the land, but Moses never did enter the Land. The result would have been a peaceful conquest. When we read the comments of the Sforno on the opening lines of the Book of Numbers, we see this idea already developed:

Count the heads of the community of the Children of Israel. To put them in order, so that they can enter the land immediately. (Sforno 1:2)

The Jews were supposed to enter the Land of Israel at this juncture. However, due to various intrigues, this generation never does enter.

But God left a sign, a reminder, of what could of been, or more precisely, what should have been.

Why, then, are a mere two verses called a "book"?

The Book of Destiny

There was supposed to be far more information in this book. The first verse was to refer to the "beginning of the redemption" while the second verse was to be the closing verse of this book. The end of the Redemption would mark the return of all Jews the nation, to the Land of Israel, to the Torah, to God.

These two verses represent a whole, incomplete book, the Book of Destiny of the Jewish people.

Indeed, these two verses represent a whole, incomplete book, the Book of Destiny of the Jewish people. God will not allow us to forget our mission. Even when we deviate from our destiny and stray from the proper path as we did in the desert, we are reminded of our mission.

There is a portion of the Torah, an entire book, dedicated to telling the unfinished story and encouraging us to complete it.

Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel taught: "In the future this section will removed from here and written in its proper place." (Shabbat 116a)

Moses was correct this was the proper place for the conquest to begin, unfortunately Moses was proven wrong, because the people were not ready to enter.

Moses' dream was vanquished. In retrospect, this was not the proper place for this story of redemption to be told. At least it is not the proper place to fully tell the story.

Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel assures us that indeed this story will be completed, when the glorious march takes place and the myriad of lost Jews return, to link with the missing letters of the book which awaits its completion.


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