Commentators have long been fascinated by textual oddities and Parshat Behaalotkha is home to a rare textual phenomenon. The Torah demarcates, with what appear to be inverted letter nuns, two verses in the parasha: “Vayehi binsoa aron – When the Ark journeyed on, that Moshe would say. ‘Rise O Lord, let Your enemies scatter, and Your foes flee before You”’; Uvnukhu Yomar – And when it came to rest, he would say, ‘Come back O Lord in Israel’s teaming myriads.’” (Numbers 10:35-36) We are familiar with these two verses because they later became part of the liturgy for returning the Torah to the Aron Kodesh (the Holy Ark) after reading the Torah.
We are a bit at a loss to explain why these verses are singled out by these critical marks. The earliest extant debate over their significance is found in Sifre Bemidbar, a midrashic work on the book of Numbers from the period of the Mishnah:
‘When the Ark journeyed on‘ [These two verses] are marked with dots (in our texts they are marked with inverted nuns) because this is not their original place. Rabbi said: [These two verses are to be considered as a separate book [of the Torah] … Rabbi Yishmael said: These verses are marked with dots above and below because this is not its original place. What should have been written here? ‘And the people were as complainers.’ (Numbers 11:1) (Adapted from Sifre Bemidbar 84, Kahana ed. p. 204)
A number of sages have offered their opinions regarding the proper location for this passage (See S. Lieberman, Hellenism in Jewish Palestine, p. 40), but for our purposes, I found the opinion of Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel, located in the Talmud particularly intriguing. He tries to answer why this passage was placed where it is: “[Its purpose is] to separate between [the story] of one punishment and that of another”, namely, it separated between the tragic departure from Mount Sinai (remember, the story of the “Golden Calf) and the story of the complainers (who complained about the dietary limitations in the desert). (See Shabbat 116a) This sage is trying to say that this passage serves as an interlude between two troubling episodes which occurred during the desert trek.
While obviously the factual significance of this answer is open for discussion, I think it has a message of particular religious and existential import. These two verses portray the role of the Ark during the desert trek. When the people are on the move, the Ark takes the lead for it symbolically represents God’s protective leadership and when the people are encamped, it serves as their sacred center. Is it any wonder, then, why Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel would want to station this passage in between two troublesome crisis situations? The Ark, which contained God’s message, was to serve as an anchor for the people to gird them in the face of troubling times.
And is it any wonder, then, that we recite these verses when we return the Torah to the ark after having read from it. Perhaps this too is intended as a reminder that God and the Torah are our source of identity, the focus of our being and our true sense of security.