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Monday, June 6, 2011

Words in the Desert: Inverted Situations and the Torah Portion of Beha'alotcha

The Torah portion of Beha'alotcha contains a segment demarcated by two inverted nuns, the only such occurence in the Torah. Our sages remark that the nun stands for nefilah, fall, and that it is from this point on that the Jewish people begin to experience spiritual falls. Rashi's commentary on the verse follows a similar line of thinking, but it is not exactly the same:

35. 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.


לה. וַיְהִי בִּנְסֹעַ הָאָרֹן וַיֹּאמֶר משֶׁה קוּמָה | יְהֹוָה וְיָפֻצוּ אֹיְבֶיךָ וְיָנֻסוּ מְשַׂנְאֶיךָ מִפָּנֶיךָ:

RASHI: So it was, whenever the ark set out: He made marks for it [this passage], before it and after it, as if to indicate that this is not its proper place [in Scripture]. So why was it written here? To make a break between one punishment and the next… as it is stated in [chapter 16 of Talmud Shabbath , commencing with the words] “All the Sacred Scriptures.”

Rashi states that the nuns "make a break between one punishment and the next." There's only one tremendous difficulty with this statement: there is no evidence of any punishment immediately preceding the demarcation. Only after this line does the Torah mention that the Jewish people complained and that this was evil in Hashem's eyes, which caused a fire to burn in the camp. Before, there is no mention of punishment, neither in this portion or the one prior. It is even hard to remember the last time punishment was mentioned at all, except perhaps for the Torah portion of Bechukotai (in the Book of Leviticus!), which is discussing future punishments.

The answer to this question lies perhaps in the fact that we do not really understand what is meant by punishment and what is meant by a spiritual descent.

Immediately prior to the above verse, the Torah describes how Moshe tried to convince Yitro, his fahter-in-law, to come to the Land of Israel with them, but that (at least for now) he refused and returned to his home. This itself can be considered a punishment, because having Yitro with them was a tremendous honor. He after all, was someone who had tried every single idol worship and rejected all of them to accept G-d alone. His departure showed that the Children of Israel had failed to make a significant lasting impression on him that would have made him truly leave everything behind and fully join them, just as he had done initially. Yitro's excitement did not last, which was perhaps an indication that it was never fully there to begin with.

Similarly, the text indicates that the Jewish people themselves were not on such a high spiritual level as they imagined. Our sages teach us that when they departed from the "Mountain of G-d," they were actually willingly trying to escape from G-dliness. This also is the greatest punishment.

When a person sins and is punished, do not think that the sin appeared out of the blue. Rebbe Nachman teaches that the sin is a true indication of your actual level! You might have thought you were much higher than that, but the reality is that you were never so high. The proof is that you now sinned.

The positive side of this is that it leaves no reason to be sad because of sin. Now that you know your true level, you are free to restart your Divine service in a much more true and real way, without delusions of grandeur. Start again, fully trusting in Hashem's mercy and realizing that both the sin and the punishment are actually a FAVOR that G-d does for us, taking us out of our inverted sense of greatness and helping us land on our feet.    

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