After the camps are arranged around the Mishkan in Parashiyot Bamidbar and Nasso, the camp moves forward, beginning its trek through the desert in Parashat Behaalotecha. At the onset of the journey, two verses are set off from the rest of the text: “va’yehi binsoa ha’aron,” “And it was when the Ark would journey…,” and “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 Hebrew letters, two nuns. Hazal had a number of explanations for this, but the most intriguing is no doubt that of Rebbe, who said that the two verses constitute a separate book of the Torah (Shabbat, 116a). What is the meaning of Rebbe’s statement? What is so significant about these two verses that he could see them as a book of the Torah in their own right?
Their significance lies 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 either been moving toward Har Sinai or dwelling at the foot of the mountain. They had received the Torah, but they had not yet brought the Torah into their lives. They had arranged their lives to accommodate the Torah – they built the Mishkan, arranged the camp, separated the pure from the impure – but they had not yet moved forward. It was as if they had bought a house near the shul, kashered their kitchen, learned all the laws, but not yet begun to live day-to-day with and by the Torah. Now they were ready to start living the life that the Torah had commanded in accordance with the vision of the Torah.
We know how they fared. “The Children of Israel journeyed”; they journeyed forth and immediately they failed (Bamidbar, 10:12). And they continued failing, time and again: “And the people were grumbling, evil in the eyes of God”; “the rabble that was among them lusted a great lust” (Bamidbar 11:1, 4). The rest of Sefer Bamidbar is the story of their journey through the desert and 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 the people: They were still a group of unruly slaves with a slavish mentality. They had not yet received any law, any instruction. Naturally, the first response to this grumbling 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 the people had their marching orders. Hence, the failure of Bnei Yisrael is much more profound. Laws should have given the people a structure, a sense of meaning and purpose. Laws should have helped instill in the people an empowered identity as the 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.
But this sense of purpose and faith is not achieved by law alone; it also requires the meaning that we give to the law. Does the law-the multitude of laws-just restrict and control 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 only seen as problems and obstacles, if they do not point to a life of meaning, then the response is to regard them as a burden and to try to escape them. The challenges of the wilderness are met with fear, discontent, and grumbling.
To confront this tendency, we must understand and frame for ourselves the higher purpose in a life of law, a life of Torah and mitzvot. This is how we are to depart from Har Sinai and move forward, not just with mitzvot but with marching orders, an understanding of and identification with the larger purpose they serve. This is not simply the adopting of a given purpose; it includes our own framing of the 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,” and again, “And they journeyed first. By the word of God through the hand of Moshe (Bamidbar 9:23, 10:13). The “hand of Moshe” does not simply point to Moshe as the conduit of God’s word. Rather, it signifies the one who was instrumental in giving form to that word and bringing it into action: It is the blowing of the trumpets when the cloud moves. It is not the servile following of God’s dictate but the owning of the movement forward, the personalization of the journey. It is the blowing of the trumpet to call others to the journey.
But it is still more than this. It is the shaping that we give to it as well. The “va’yehi binsoa ha’aron“- the sefer in its own accord – is the book of the Torah that is our 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 aron, but we also frame it and give it a meaning that resonates with 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 our own meaning is. How do we frame this life of Torah and mitzvot?
Every time we take out the Torah and every time we return it, each time we read from the Torah and hear God’s instruction, we also repeat this small book of the Torah. We state that taking out the Torah and putting it back – the movement of the Torah in our lives – must be given meaning; it must serve a higher purpose, one that comes from God and that we shape. Let us not make this book of the Torah a rote ritual. Let us remember, every time we say it in our prayer, that we are being called to a higher purpose, one that we must be partners in shaping.