At the end of chapter ten of Numbers (verses 35-46), the following, very famous paragraph, is framed by two inverted נונים:
וַיְהִ֛י בִּנְסֹ֥עַ הָאָרֹ֖ן וַיֹּ֣אמֶר מֹשֶׁ֑ה קוּמָ֣ה׀ יי וְיָפֻ֙צוּ֙ אֹֽיְבֶ֔יךָ וְיָנֻ֥סוּ מְשַׂנְאֶ֖יךָ מִפָּנֶֽיךָ. וּבְנֻחֹ֖ה יֹאמַ֑ר שׁוּבָ֣ה יי רִֽבְב֖וֹת אַלְפֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵֽל
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!”
The first part of this paragraph is recited when the Sefer Torah is taken out of the ark, and its second part when the Sefer Torah is returned. The inverted letters before and after the paragraph have granted an enigmatic nature, generating many commentaries and extensive literature, though it could be explained very simply as a battle hymn. The ark used to travel with the Israelites when they went to war (see Num. 14:44 and I Sam. 4:3-4), and this was a prayer for victory in battle and safe return home.
Here I would like to present an interpretation based on the perception of the inverted letters as one of the most ancient Rabbinic commentaries on the Torah, so ancient that it was recorded on the scroll itself. This opinion is mentioned in a Midrashic compilation known as מדרש חסרות ויתרות: מה ראו חכמים ליתן נוני”ן הפוכין… – why did the rabbis decide to place inverted נונים around this paragraph? The answer of the Midrash is that these two verses are not part of the prophecy of Moshe but were rather said by Eldad and Medad, the two elders left behind in the camp (11:26-29), but we will leave this answer aside for now and turn to tractate Shabbat in Talmud Bavli (104:1):
אמרי ליה רבנן לרבי יהושע בן לוי: אתו דרדקי האידנא לבי מדרשא ואמרו מילי דאפילו בימי יהושע בן נון לא איתמר כוותייהו:… נו”ן כפופה נו”ן פשוטה – נאמן כפוף נאמן פשוט
The rabbis told R. Yehoshua ben Levi, children came today to Bet HaMidrash and said things, 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…
The commentary about the two forms of the letter noon is part of the presentation of the children, who offered symbolic interpretations for all the letters in the Hebrew alphabet. Though their presentation is interesting, its hardly anything more than wordplay on the names or shapes of the letters, and it is therefore hard to understand why it merited such words of praise from the rabbis. I believe that this paragraph in Shabbat holds the key to the rabbinic decision to frame the Ark’s battle hymns between inverted noons.
The children appear in Bet HaMidrash anonymously, and their words are described as paralleling and even surpassing information transmitted in the time of Yehoshua. Yehoshua was Moshe’s disciple and the first in the chain of transmission of the Torah from one human to another. The children therefore represent an unbroken chain of transmission which could be traced all the way back to Moshe. Unlike the tradition passed on to Yehoshua, which is codified and even rigid, the children’s tradition is more emotional and symbolic. In that tradition, the letter noon stands for loyalty. The bent noon, the one which is used in the middle of a word, is analogized to a loyal servant who is also submissive, while the upright, or final noon, is compared to a loyal servant who holds his head up.
The mention of Yehoshua bin Noon in the Talmudic paragraph is meant to tell us that the inverted noons have to do with the relationships between Moshe and Yehoshua. If we were asked to describe these relationships with one word, it would probably be loyalty, as we read in Exodus (33:11):וּמְשָׁ֨רְת֜וֹ יְהוֹשֻׁ֤עַ בִּן־נוּן֙ נַ֔עַר לֹ֥א יָמִ֖ישׁ מִתּ֥וֹךְ הָאֹֽהֶל – His [Moshe’s] servant, Yehoshua bin Noon, was a young man, who would never leave the tent.
When we put together the two rabbinic traditions we can conclude that the rabbis chose to mark the paragraph with a turned-around noon to tell us that the concept of loyalty has been turned on its head. The inverted noons are road-signs telling us to carefully look at what happens before and after them. Before them, in the first ten chapters of BeMidbar, the Torah discusses the perfect form of government and nation, while after them there is an ongoing trust crisis affecting all layers of Israelite society and causing near-total collapse. Here is a list of the events which which follow the Ark’s battle hymn, and in which the sense of trust is eroded at all levels of society:
11:1-3: The people complained, apparently for no reason, and are punished by fire.
11:4-9: The riffraff(האספסוף) craves meat and as a result the whole nation cries, reminiscing about the food of Egypt and complaining about the manna.
11:10-15: Moshe rebels against God, saying that he does not want to lead the nation anymore, and claiming that the role has been for him a torture.
11:21-22: Moshe seems to doubt God’s ability to deliver meat to the whole nation.
11:26: Two elders, Eldad and Medad, prophesy on their own without being authorized by Moshe. This is either a rebellion by them or a message for Moshe from God showing who is in control.
11:31-34: The Israelites descend like predators on the quail delivered miraculously and are harshly punished.
12:1-15: Miriam and Aaron criticize Moshe. They are rebuked by God, and Miriam contracts leprosy for seven days.
13:1-33: The scouts return from Canaan and dissuade people from going there. The people do not believe that God can help them conquer the Canaanites.
14:1-4: The Israelites cry all night and then decide to appoint a new leader, instead of Moshe, and return to Egypt.
14:10: After Yehoshua and Caleb try to convince the people that it is possible to conquer Canaan, the people attempt to stone them, along with Moshe and Aharon.
14:36-38: The scouts instigate the people again and die in a plague.
14:39-45: The Israelites, remorseful for their rebellion, wage battle against the mountain dwelling nations against Moshe’s advice. The Ark does not accompany them to battle and their suffer a crushing defeat.
15:32-36: A man was found gathering wood on Shabbat, in an open act of rebellion against Moshe and the laws of the Torah.
16:1-35: Qorah accuses Moshe of assuming positions without divine approval, while two hundred and fifty of his followers compete for the position of High Priest by offering unsolicited frankincense.
17:6-7: Following the punishment of Qorah and his followers, the Israelites blame Moshe and Aharon for their death.
20:2-5: The Israelites complain about lack of water. They say that Moshe and Aharon took them from Egypt to die in the desert, and that they did not deliver on the promise to bring them to the land of milk and honey.
20:9-13: Moshe hits the rock instead of talking to it, and as a result is told by God that he will not merit to enter the Land of Canaan. It almost seems as if God was looking for a pretext to “fire” Moshe and Aharon.
21:4-9: The Israelites complain about lack of bread and water and say that the manna is rotten. They are plagued by poisonous snakes.
25:1-9: The Israelites are tempted by the Moabite women, descending into promiscuity and idolatry. Zimri openly defies Moshe by going with a Midianite woman into the Tabernacle.
32:1-32: The tribes of Gad and Reuven decide to stay in the other side of the Jordan river.
Altogether I have listed here twenty instances of rebellion and loss of trust. This is what the rabbis were directing our attention to when they marked the paragraph in chapter ten with inverted noonim. There is much more to that story, but I will follow the pathways of the rabbis and let the readers continue the analysis, with the suggestion that they look into the occurrences of the root אמנ – which means faith, loyalty, and trust, in BeMidbar (11:12; 12:7; 14:11; 20:12). The most significant pair is 11:12 where Moshe says he cannot be the אומן – the trusted caregiver, and 12:7 where God refers to Moshe as נאמן – faithful or trustworthy, the same word used in the Talmudic story about the prodigious children.
In addition to this “homework”, I would like the readers to check out the occurrences of the root אספ – gather, in the book of BeMidbar, and think about the connection of the Ark’s battle hymn and the intriguing title אלקי הרוחות לכל בשר – The God of spirits of all flesh, by which Moshe addresses God twice in BeMidbar.
I look forward to receiving your answers and to continue this discussion next week…
R. Haim Ovadia