In our Torah scrolls, two verses in this week’s portion are surrounded at each end by an upside-down letter nun: “When the Ark was to set out, Moses would say: ‘Advance, Adonai! May Your enemies be scattered, and may Your foes flee before you!’ And when it halted, he would say, ‘Return, Adonai, You are Israel’s myriads of thousands!’ ” (Numbers 10:35–36).
The special significance of this short passage already was debated in the Talmud: “The Holy One, Blessed be, made marks on this passage, above and below” (Shabbat 115b). The inverted nun is the remnant of a very old tradition indicating that this small section of Torah is not quite right.
Sifrei, a rabbinic commentary from the time of the Talmud, specifically said there were dots above and below each letter in this passage. By the second century, the tradition of treating this passage in a special way was firmly established, but no one knew why!
Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi (second century) taught that these two verses were a book of the Torah unto themselves. He suggested that the Book of Numbers should be divided into three individual books: the first 10 chapters, these two verses, and the balance of the book. These three, together with the Torah’s other four, would constitute a seven-volume Torah. This view was supported by the biblical verse “Wisdom has built her house, She has hewn her seven pillars” (Proverbs 9:1).
“Wisdom” commonly was understood to be a reference to Torah; thus, if wisdom had “seven pillars,” how did these correlate to just five books? So the rabbi renumbered the books of the Torah and counted seven.
What was so distinctive about these verses that merited their consideration as an entirely separate book? Rabbi Yehuda doesn’t say. Some ancient commentators suggest that these verses are all that survives from a now-lost book of prophetic teachings of Eldad and Medad, two unauthorized prophets mentioned in this week’s portion.
More intriguing is an explanation brought forward in the Talmud: “The Holy One placed marks above and below this passage to indicate that it is out of place.” It’s as if God realized that the Torah still needed some editing, and highlighted this passage for later revision, but never got around to it.
The very idea that the Torah is a less-than-perfect document, however, contradicts much of what our tradition teaches. Personally, I love the verses at the end of the Torah service, which include: “God’s Torah is perfect, reviving the soul; God’s teaching is sure, making wise the simple” (Psalm 19:8).
The psalmist’s words are true, if we understand Torah in its fullest and richest meaning. The Talmud’s observation — ”This section is out of place” — is an invitation to engage in a careful and lovingly critical reading of the Torah. The self-reflective and self-critical stance is one of the most distinguishing and wonderful aspects of our tradition.
Our reading of sacred scripture is not troubled by the realization that something appears “out of place”; this awareness is the opening to a creative midrashic reading or, in other places, the wrestling that is at the core of our identity as the descendants of Jacob.
In his wonderful “People of the Book,” Moshe Halbertal persuasively argues that a core moment in Judaism is the transference of authority from the Torah’s divine inspiration to rabbinic interpretation. There are several talmudic legends in which God declines to answer legal questions posed by Moses’ successors; when Joshua tries to learn what he once heard and has since forgotten, the reply quotes the Torah (Deuteronomy 30:11–12): “This Instruction which I enjoin upon you this day … is not beyond reach. It is not in the heavens …” (Temura 16a).
The Torah’s perfection, its completeness and value, are found not in the scroll itself, just as in ourselves and our world there are things that are “out of place.” All the same, we ground ourselves in Torah — in its words, in its interpretations and in our continuing wrestling with its teachings as understood by prior generations, by the interpretative communities that we are part of and by our own ever-emerging understanding. We come to realize that in the pre-messianic world in which we live, even that which is most perfect remains incomplete and in need of tikkun.
Rabbi Yoel Kahn is the senior rabbi at Reform Congregation Beth El of Berkeley. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.