We’re all familiar with the 5 Books of Moses, but how many of us know that some Talmudic sages call the Torah the “7 Books of Moses?” This is not because of a disagreement about lost works, a la Mel Brooks in “History of the World Part I” when he descended from Mt. Sinai with 3 tablets and 15 commandments, and as he drops one, he says, “I have 15, no 10 Commandments for you.” It’s call the 7 Books of Moses because of the importance attached to 2 verses in this week’s portion—2 verses we’re all familiar with: Va-y’hi vinso-a haaron vayomer Moshe, kumah Hashem v’yafutzo oyvecha, v’yanusu m’sanecha, mipanecha, “When the Ark would journey, Moses said, ‘Arise, Hashem, and let Your foes be scattered, let those who hate You flee from before You.” We say this whenever the Torah is taken out of the Ark. And when the Torah is returned we say the next verse: Uv’nucho yomar, shuvah Hashem riv’vot alphey Yisrael, “Return Gd the myriad of thousands of Israel.”
There’s something very unusual in the Torah text containing these verses. They are enclosed—as if in parentheses—by the letter nun written upside down on each side. According to the Talmud, these verses are enclosed by an inverted nun because—are you ready for this—they form a separate book of the Torah! This Talmudic approach holds that there are really 7 books in the Torah, not 5: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers up to this point, these 2 verses, the remainder of Numbers, and Deuteronomy. Why do these 2 verses form their own book?
At this point in the Torah, the Israelites are ready to begin their journey to the Promised Land. The Torah has been received and the Tabernacle has been built and consecrated. The promise Gd made to our ancestors of the Israelites being Gd’s people in Gd’s land is about to be fulfilled. But then something tragic happens. They don’t go! And that’s where these parenthetical verses appear.
According to the Sages, these verses represent the book that was never written—the book relating the conquest of the land of Israel by Moses and the building of Gd’s Temple. It’s the book that should have been written, but wasn’t.
It wasn’t written because of all the events that subsequently transpired. Just as the Children of Israel were beginning their journey, they began to rebel. They complained about the food; Miriam and Aaron speak out against Moses; the spies report that the land will be impossible to conquer; Korach rebels against Gd and Moses; Moses strikes the rock, and on and on—one rebellion of ingratitude after another. It soon became clear that the Israelites were not yet ready to enter the Promised Land.
So these 2 verses were written with parentheses of sorts—the inverted nuns—to indicate that there was a break in the pre-ordained destiny of the Jewish people. In other words, Gd here leaves us a reminder of what could have been—or better yet—what should have been written in that book, but wasn’t. And so these 2 short verses represent a whole, complete book.
Don’t we all have a book like that—a book of unfulfilled dreams of what should have happened in our lives but didn’t? Each one of us has certain expectations about our lives. Maybe it’s to get out of debt or to be healthy again, to meet the right person or to start our own business or career. But we don’t see any sign that it’s happening. No matter what we do, nothing seems to change. Now you don’t see how you can accomplish what should have been.
It could be that in Gd’s plan for our lives there are set times when certain things will happen and that time hasn’t yet come. Or it could be that we’ve gone off the right path and taken a detour that has effected what should have been.
What can we do now to complete our individual books and the incomplete book of our people? 1st of all, we need to do our best to live a Jewish life—maybe even do one or 2 mitzvot more than we’ve done recently. And secondly, we need to reach out more to our fellow Jew and together enrich our Jewish lives and relationship with Gd.
In reference to the inverted nuns, it’s interesting that nun is a word in Aramaic—the language of the Talmud—that means “fish.” A dead fish flows downstream. A kosher fish swims upstream just like a kosher duck has to have the power to paddle upstream. If it can’t paddle upstream it’s not kosher. The sign of a kosher animal or fish is that it has the ability to swim against the current. This is the meaning of the nuns that are backward—they go against the currents of life.
The ancient Israelites did not go against the currents of the world around them. They gave in to the temptations of the pagan world and to their own desires. They didn’t appreciate all that Gd had done for them. In a particularly gross display of ingratitude in today’s parsha they complain to Moses that they’re bored with their miracle food manna that rained down every day from heaven—a food, according to the sages, could taste like whatever they wanted. They said (Num. 11:5-6): “We remember the fish that we ate in Egypt free of charge; and the cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions and garlic. But now our life is parched, there is nothing; we have nothing to anticipate but the manna!” What fish? What melons? Eating in Egypt was so wonderful? Their Egyptian taskmasters fed them nothing but matzah!
The lesson is that we must open our hearts to appreciate what Gd has given us and to share with others our appreciation and enthusiasm for Gd and Jewish life. How difficult is it to have a guest over for a Shabbos dinner? Such invitations can be life changing and if we have the ability to change another Jew’s life, then we have the obligation to do so. It’s doing our part to finish those books that remain to be written. It could be just a kind word or a helping hand. It was individual apathy, greed and jealousy which prevented that 2-verse book of the Torah from being completed. It’s what prevents our own books from being completed today.
My friends, the books are open. We have the chance to finish them. We have the opportunity to truly shape the destiny of the Jewish people. The final verse of this 2-verse book in the Torah is recited when we return the Torah to the Ark: Shuva Hashem r’vivot alphey Yisrael, “Return Gd the myriad of thousands of Israel.” The end of the story, the end of the book, will be marked by the return of all Jews, everywhere to the Gd of Israel, to the people of Israel and to the land of Israel. It’s up to us to do our part. May it happen in our lifetimes. Amen!
Rabbi Mark Hillel Kunis