After the arranging of the camps around the Mishkan, in parashat Bamidbar and Nasso, our parasha, parashat Biha’alotkha, sees the camp moving forward and the beginning of the trek through the desert. At the opening of this trek, two verses are set off from the rest of the text – va’yehi binsoa ha’aron, “And it was when the Ark would journey…”, u’vinukho yomar, “And when it rested, he said…” (Bamidbar 10:35-36). These two verses, which we repeat every time we take and return the Torah to and from the aron in shul, are set off from the Torah by two inverted letter-nuns. Hazal had a number of explanations for this, but the most intriguing is no doubt that of Rebbe who said that it is separate book of the Torah (Shabbat 116a).
What is the meaning of Rebbe’s statement? What is so significant about these two verses that merit them being a book of the Torah in their own right?
Their significance lies, I believe, in the fact that they serve as the transition from a life before the Torah was given to a life with Torah. Until now, the people had been moving towards Har Sinai, or dwelling at the foot of Har Sinai. They had received the Torah, but they had not yet brought the Torah into their lives. They had arranged their lives accordingly – they had built the Mishkan, arranged the camp, separated the pure from the impure, but they had not yet moved forward. They had – as it were – bought a house near the shul, kashered their kitchen, learned all the laws, but had not yet begun to live their day-to-day with and by the Torah. They now were ready to start living the life that the Torah had commanded them, and in accordance with the vision of the Torah. How would they fare?
We know how they fared. “The Children of Israel journeyed…” (Bamidbar 10:12) – the journeyed forth and immediately they failed. And then they continued failing, time and again. “And the people were grumbling, evil in the eyes of God…” (Bamidbar 11:1). “The rabble that was among them lusted a great lust…” (Bamidbar 11:4). The rest of the book of Bamidbar is the story of their journey through the desert, of their failures of faith.
These failures, these grumblings, are more profoundly disappointing than the failures and grumblings that preceded the receiving of the Torah. There nothing more could be expected of them – they were still a group of unruly slaves, with a slavish mentality. Moreover, they had not yet received any law, any instruction. The first response to this grumbling, then, was to give them laws – “And the nation complained to Moshe saying, “What shall we drink?” And he called out to God… there God gave them ordinance and law, and there God tested them.” (Shemot 15:25-26).
The grumblings of our parasha, however, come after the receiving of the Torah, after they had their marching orders, and hence the failure of Benei Yisrael was that much more profound. Laws should have given the people a structure, a sense of meaning and purpose. They should have helped to instill in the people an empowered identity as a nation that carries God’s word, and the people should have had the strength of faith and purpose to confront the challenges of the desert.
However, this sense of purpose and faith is not achieved by law alone, but also by the meaning that we give to the law. Is the law – are the multitude of laws – just ways of restricting our lives and controlling us, or is it a way of structuring our lives and guiding us to a higher purpose? The people, it seems, believed the former – “‘We remember the fish that we ate in Egypt for free’ (Bamidbar 11:5) – free from the mitzvot” (Rashi). If the mitzvot are just problems and obstacles, if they do not point to a life of meaning, then the response is to see them as a burden, to try to escape them. The challenges of the wilderness are met with fear, discontent, and grumbling.
The response to this is to understand, and to frame for ourselves, the higher purpose in a life of law, in a life of Torah and mitzvot. This is how we are to depart Har Sinai and move forward – not just with mitzvot, but with marching orders, with our understanding of and identifying with the larger purpose that they serve. And it is not just the adopting of a purpose given to us – it is also our own framing of our mission. “By the word of God they would journey. The charge of God they kept, by the word of God through the hand of Moshe.” (Bamidbar 9:23), and again, “And they journeyed first. By the word of God through the hand of Moshe.” (Bamidbar 10:13). The “hand of Moshe” is not just Moshe as the messenger to communicate God’s word. It is, first, the one who was instrumental in giving form to that word and bringing that word into action – it is the blowing of the trumpets when the cloud moves; it is not the servile following of another’s – God’s – dictate, but it is the owning of that movement forward, the making of the journey one’s own. It is the blowing of the trumpet to call others to this journey, to this calling.
But it is more than that. It is also the shaping that we give it as well. The “va’yehi binsoa ha’aron” – the sefer in its own accord – is the book of the Torah which is the personal framing and shaping of the other books of the Torah. It is the way we move forward from Har Sinai and confront the challenges of the desert. We follow God’s cloud and the moving of the aron, but we also frame it and give it meaning that resonates for us, that inspires us to serve its – and our – higher purpose. “Arise O God and let your enemies scatter… Reside God, among the myriads of thousands of Israel.” That was Moshe’s meaning. Let us own that meaning, but let us also ask – what is our meaning? How do we frame this life of Torah and mitzvot?
Every time we take out the Torah and we put it back – every time we read from the Torah and hear God’s instruction, we also repeat this small book of the Torah. We state that the taking out of the Torah and the putting it back – the movement of the Torah in our lives – must be given meaning, must serve a higher purpose. A purpose coming from God, and a purpose shaped by us. Let us not make this book of the Torah just a rote ritual. Let us remember, every time we say it in our prayer, that we are being called to a higher purpose, and that we must be partners in shaping that purpose.