SALT - Motzaei Shabbat, Erev Chag Shavuot, Omer 49 - June 11, 2016

  • Rav David Silverberg

            Parashat Behaalotekha includes a famous pair of verses (10:35-36) that are surrounded on either side by unusual symbols – specifically, upside-down nun’s – which appear to serve as “parentheses” setting these verses apart from the rest of the text.  The first of these verses (“Va-yehi bi-nso’a ha-aron”) tells that when Benei Yisrael embarked from Sinai on the journey that was to have taken them directly to the Land of Israel, Moshe said a prayer that God’s enemies should be scattered.  This likely refers to the battle that was to have been imminently waged against the Canaanites to vanquish them from Eretz Yisrael, a battle that was delayed forty years due to Benei Yisrael’s wrongdoing (see Seforno).  The second verse (“U-v’nucho yomar”) tells of Moshe’s proclamation when the people encamped, asking that God’s presence should reside among the people.

            The Gemara in Masekhet Shabbat (116a) cites the view of Rebbe that this pair of verses is enclosed by “parentheses” to indicate that “sefer chashuv hu bi-fnei atzmo” – these verses constitute an independent book.  According to this view, there are actually seven, rather than five, books of the Torah, as the book of Bamidbar consists of three separate books: the section from the beginning of Sefer Bamidbar until this pair of verses; these two verses; and the rest of Sefer Bamidbar.

            How exactly are we to understand this concept, that these two verses comprise a separate “book”?

            An especially novel approach is taken by Rav Yehuda Leib Ginsburg, in his Yalkut Yehuda.  He writes that these verses constitute an independent book in the sense that they deal with warfare.  This pair of verses speaks of the war that Benei Yisrael were to have waged at that time, after embarking from Sinai on the journey that was to have brought them immediately to their land, which they would have then conquered.  War, Rav Ginsburg writes, must be perceived as a “sefer chashuv bi-fnei atzmo” – a separate, independent reality.  The situation of war necessitates suspending certain basic codes of behavior.  Most obviously, it necessitates taking human life, which in other contexts is the most grievous offense one can commit.  The Torah also relaxes to some degree its usual standards of sexual morality, permitting, under certain conditions, relations with a female captive.  Eating non-kosher food is also allowed under certain circumstances when fighting a war (Rambam, Hilkhot Melakhim 8:1).  The “parentheses” surrounding these verses, Rav Ginsburg suggests, indicates to us that the reality of warfare, and the attendant suspension or modification of certain fundamental Torah laws, must be regarded as its own “sefer,” an exception that stands separate and apart from ordinary life.  The Torah recognizes that war is occasionally necessary, and the harsh realities of warfare necessitate temporarily suspending certain basic religious precepts, but it insists that this suspension remain the exception and never become the rule.  These “parentheses” serve the vitally important purpose of reminding us that the unique measures which apply under the conditions of war are exceptional and outside the pale of acceptable behavior in all other contexts, and that we must ensure not to allow these exceptions to lower our standards of ethics and spiritual devotion under ordinary circumstances.