Words that we sing with gusto as we take the Sefer Torah out of the Ark, and the conluding phrase that accompanies its return, have their source in the Parasha of Beha’alotecha.
This sedra concludes the first part of the book of Bemidbar which describes the arrangement and functioning of the Israelite camp, with the details of how the tribes journeyed. The centrepiece of the camp embarking was the majestic movement of the Ark of the Covenant, and on this the Torah declares: “When the Ark went forth, Moses said: ‘Arise, O God, and scatter your enemies! Let your foes flee before you’”. The very next verse describes the conclusion of the Ark’s travels. “When it came to rest, he said, ‘Return, O God, to the myriads of Israel’s thousands” (Numbers 10: 35-36).
Not only do these two verses have pride of place in the Shabbat morning service, they are highlighted in a unique fashion in the Sefer Torah itself. Around this short paragraph appear characters that are not seen anywhere else in the Bible – reversed versions of the letter nun which resemble brackets, serving to highlight and delineate these two sentences.
Indeed one authority in the Talmud refers to the “Seven books of the Torah”, since these brackets divide the book of Bemidbar into three (the two verses, and the chapters preceding and following) making seven books altogether.
What is the special significance of this “micro-book”? For what message do these two statements deserve to be singled out in such a way?
I heard from Rav Lau, the former Chief Rabbi of Israel, that the entire history of the Jewish people can be summed up in these few words.
For much of our experience, the Ark has been “going forth” as we have been in exile, unable and forbidden to settle in any one place. During this era, our vulnerability and frequent persecution has meant that our prayer has been one of “scatter your enemies” – may God protect us from our foes.
However our story is not entirely one of pain and suffering. For a thousand years we dwelt as an independent people on our land during the time of the Israelite Kingdom and subsequent Commonwealth of Judea. And in our times, the Jewish people have returned to their land and half of our nation have “come home”. The Ark is again resting.
Therefore our prayer need no longer focus on the scattering of our enemies. Now is the time for “Return O God to the myriads of the Israel’s thousands”. The return to Zion is an opportunity for a return to our spiritual roots, and indeed the State of Israel has become home to more institutions of Jewish learning, serving all sectors of the community, than ever existed before. Our task is fulfil the vision of the Prophets and let “Torah come out from Zion”; the vision of Ahad Ha’am to create a centre of Jewish culture in Israel.
Protection during exile and spiritual rejuvenation at home. The simple yet profound message of these two short verses truly constitutes an entire book of the Torah.