Parshat Beha’alotecha

Torah Reading for Week of May 23-29, 2021
“The Inverted Nunim”
By Rabbi Haim Ovadia, AJRCA Professor of Talmud & Sephardic Thought
The views expressed in this drash are those of the author. We welcome Torah insights and teachings from all viewpoints, and encourage dialogue to strengthen the diversity of our academy.
When the ark traveled, Moshe would say: “Rise, YHWH, let your enemies scatter and your adversaries flee You!” When it rested, he would say: “Return, YHWH, the myriads of thousands of Israel!” (Num. 10:35-36)
In the Torah scroll this paragraph is preceded and succeeded by the letter Noon, inverted. What is the meaning of this unusual framing of the paragraph, which, according to the Midrash, is a rabbinic addition?
I believe that the rabbis were trying to send a message to the people and leaders of their times. In the Talmud (B. Shabbat,104:1), we read that:
The rabbis told R. Yehoshua ben Levi, children came today to Bet HaMidrash and said words, the like of which was unheard of even at the time of Yehoshua bin Noon:… bent noon and straight noon (נ,ן) represent the bent loyal person and the upright loyal person…
Though the children’s presentation is interesting, it is hardly anything more than wordplay on the names or shapes of the letters. Why then did it merit such praise from the rabbis? Apparently, this paragraph in Shabbat is holding some secrets.
The children who appear in Bet HaMidrash are anonymous, and their words are described as greater than those of Yehoshua, who was Moshe’s faithful disciple and the first in the chain of transmission of the Torah from one human to another. The children are also part of that unbroken chain of transmission, but whereas Yehoshua’s tradition is codified and rigid, the children’s tradition is symbolic and fluid. In that tradition, the letter noon stands for loyalty. The bent noon, the one used in the middle of a word, is analogized to a loyal and submissive servant, while the upright, final noon, is compared to a loyal servant who holds his head up.
Indeed, the same Yehoshua, whose father’s name was Noon, had was devoutly faithful to Moshe:
Yehoshua bin Noon… would never leave the tent (Ex. 33:11).
The rabbis marked the paragraph with inverted Noonim to tell us that from this point in BeMidbar, loyalty is turning upside down. The misshapen letters are road-signs, hung upside down to draw our attention and make us notice the change in scenery. Before the signs the Torah discusses the perfect form of government and nation, while after them there is an ongoing trust crisis which affects all strata of Israelite society and causes near-total collapse. From Num. 11:1-3 to 32:1-32 there are twenty instances of rebellion and loss of trust. Even Moshe, at one point, mistrusts himself and God.
Loss of trust is a problem which could plague any society or system. God put the perfect program in place but for it to function people had to come together and trust each other.
The crises in BeMidbar and their resemblance of many societies throughout history could be disheartening and cause despair, but the solution is alluded to in the paragraph framed between the Noonim:
Return YHWH, with the myriads of thousands of Israel. Trust is achieved when the leaders recognize the diversity within the people and when they are willing to give room to each of them and hear their voice, and when people are willing to join forces for a better society.
In the words of David Brooks in The Social Animal:
You can siphon money to poor areas, but unless a culture develops self-control, social mobility is unattainable.
You can raise or lower taxes, but without trust and confidence, corporations and institutions will not form, and people will not invest in each other.
You can declare elections, but without responsible citizens, democracy will not flourish.
May we all learn from the inverted noonim to trust and listen to each other.
Shabbat Shalom!