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The Torah Learning Library of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah

The Great Significance of the Smallest Book of the Torah

by Rabbi Avi Weiss (Posted on May 25, 2016)
Topics: Behaalotecha, Ethics, Machshava/Jewish Thought, Sefer Bamidbar, Torah

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The words we recite when taking the Torah from the Ark are found in this week’s portion. “And it came to pass, when the Ark set forward, that Moshe (Moses) said ‘rise up O Lord and let Your enemies be scattered; and let them that hate You flee before You'” (Numbers 10:35).

This sentence is unique in its importance as it is inserted between two inverted letters nun that almost look like brackets. The Talmud claims that this sentence actually constitutes a book of its own (Shabbat 116a).

In this way, it is actually the smallest book of the Torah. What truly is the meaning of this sentence? What is the relationship between the Ark and the scattering of our enemies? And finally, what makes this sentence important enough to be recited when taking the Torah from the Ark?

Ultimately the Torah is a book that reflects a system of ethics that comes from God. From that perspective, the Torah is at war against paganism, and practices that are contrary to God’s ethical systems. Thus, when we take the Torah from the Ark, we declare that its very motif is to scatter those who are antagonistic to Torah to its fundamental ethical principles.

Rabbi Samson Rafael Hirsch offers a variation of this theme. In Nechama Leibowitz’s words: “Hirsch remarked that Moshe was aware that enemies would rise up against the Torah from the moment that it was given. Its demands for justice and altruism were bound to antagonize aggressors and tyrants and stand in the way of their design. The Torahs call to holiness would not only arouse hatred, but also active persecution.”

Just sixty five years after the Shoah, this concept especially resonates. Some have actually suggested that Hitler’s hatred of the Jews was precipitated by his understanding that Judaism stood firmly against his positions. Thus, when taking out the Torah we say that the enemy, who would oppose the Torah, should be defeated.

Another thought comes to mind. The test of one’s ethical behavior is how we act in the most difficult of situations. One of those situations is in war itself. Therefore, the juxtaposition between Torah and scattering the enemy. In other words, the Torah declares, when we go to war and are hopeful that the enemy will be dispersed, the Torah, God’s system of ethics, must always be kept.

This concept has contemporary meaning. When Israeli soldiers are inducted into the army they make a commitment to what is called tihur ha-neshek – purity of arms. In other words, they declare that even in the most difficult situations when they must use force, they commit themselves to do so with purity, with goodness, with a sense of what is right.

To the world we must echo the words of this week’s portion. To the world, we must declare ashrei ha-am she-yeish lo tzavah musari ke-tzvah haganah le-yisrael-blessed is the nation that has as its army – the Israel Defense Forces – which is amongst the most moral armies on the face of the earth.