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Drash on Parashat B’haalotcha

In Parashat Beha’alotecha, sandwiched between the marching order of the Israelites in the wilderness and an account of the people’s kvetching over having nothing but manna to eat, we find a short poem.

The poem is just two verses long:

When the Ark was to set out, Moses would say: Advance, O LORD! May Your enemies be scattered, And may Your foes flee before You! And when it halted, he would say: Return, O LORD, You who are Israel’s myriads of thousands!

The Hebrew of the first verse of the Song of the Ark, as the poem is known, might be familiar. It is used in the Torah service at the moment when the Torah is taken out of the Aron HaKodesh.

There is an ancient tradition, reflected in every Torah scroll to this day, that these verses are bracketed between inverted letter nuns. These kinds of scribal peculiarities are thought to be indications that there is a problem with the text. Jacob Milgrom in his JPS commentary assumes that the markings setting off the Song of the Ark have an editorial function, alerting us that the Song of the Ark is out of place. This is plausible as the inclusion of the poem at this point creates an awkward break in the narrative.

The Talmud offers two possible explanations for the special treatment of the Song of the Ark. Some of our teachers also believed that the Song of the Ark does not  belong in its present position. In Tractate Shabbat we learn: ”The Holy One, blessed be He, provided markers beginning and end [setting it off from its context], to say that this is not its correct location.” But if it was assumed to be in the wrong place, why not just move it to the right place? Because it serves a function where it is, the Rabbis say— to break up what would otherwise be one long tale of Israelite misbehavior. The phrase “they set out from the Mountain of Adonai” in the verse preceding the Song is taken to mean that the people strayed from the proper path. Without the intrusion of the poem the narrative would move from straying straight to kvetching.

Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi does not accept this explanation. He teaches that the reason the passage is set off by the inverted nuns is to tell us that “it constitutes a book in itself.”  The Talmud then connects this idea that the Song of the Ark is its own book with the teaching of R. Samuel bar Nahmani that there are in fact seven books of the Torah— three of them are within what we call the book of Numbers— everything before the Song of the Ark is a book, and all of Numbers after is a book, and the Song of the Ark itself is a book.

In a Midrash on Proverbs this understanding is taken a step further. Here we are told that Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi did not just say that the Song of the Ark was a separate book. He said it was a book in itself and it was withdrawn. The implication is that the passage marked out by the nuns is the remnant of a book, most of which was not transmitted and so has been lost.

I have to admit that I am enchanted by the idea that there is a fragment of a secret book hiding in plain sight within the Torah, particularly because this notion might even be historically accurate, at least in part. Scholars today suggest that this snippet of a poem may well have been taken from some longer work. Jacob Milgrom notes that what we have may be “a fragment of a larger saga on the life of Moses.”

There is something tantalizing about the possibility that the Torah does not tell us all that we might want to know about a figure as central as Moses. If this odd couplet really is the remnant of a lost epic, it is certain that it will never be recovered. What remains— the hint, the whisper of another dimension of meaning— is still of great value. These out-of-place verses are a reminder that all of the Torah is suffused with mystery. However much we have studied our sacred texts, we are perpetual beginners. And so we must approach Torah with humility, assuming that there is much that remains beyond us. It is as if the whole of the Torah is bracketed with scribal marks that tell us: “Look carefully. You have not seen everything yet.”

Real mystery is not at all like the “mystery” we find in a detective novel. It is not a puzzle that is solved once and in only one way and then ceases to be of interest. Real mystery, the mystery of Torah, is a world in which we immerse ourselves. When we think of Torah in this way, we sense the depth of Ben Bag Bag’s teaching: “Turn it over and over again, for everything is in it.”

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