There’s an interesting typographical oddity in this week’s parasha:
The inverted נs only appear here in the Torah (they appear in תהילים קז in the Allepo Codex, though I don’t know what they mean there). The gemara discusses these marks, which are taken as a form of punctuation (scholars connect these to similar ancient Greek marks, sigma and antisigma, which marked off texts and are the origin of modern parentheses):
Rabbi Yehuda Hanasi’s comment indicates that simply being “out of place” would not warrant marking it; there are innumerable examples of אין מוקדם ומאוחר בתורה. He adds that this case is even more extreme: these pesukim are actually considered a separate book of “חומש” in their own right:
Wisdom hath builded her house; she hath hewn out her seven pillars.
We will have to see what this idea of a separate, 2-verse “book” means.
The gemara goes on to analyze the misplacement:
I think it would be too radical for רשב״ג to propose actually emending the text of the Torah. We will see what it means to say that “in the future” this paragraph will be restored to its place. But what does it mean, to separate between פורענות ראשונה and פורענות שנייה? What פורענות are there in our parasha?
Inauguration of the Leviim
Age limits for Leviim
Pesach and the complaints of the impure
The journey begins
The appeal to Yitro
ויהי בנסע הארן
Waiting for Miriam
And then we go on to the spies, the decree of 40 years wandering, the מעפלים, the מקשש עצים, קרח and on. There are lots of פורענות (translate that as “troubles”) after, but everything before seems benign.
The Ramban explains that the Torah didn’t want to establish a חזקה of sin. The rest of ספר במדבר may be a litany of misbehavior, but at least let the Jews take the first step away from Sinai without making it clear that they missed the point of the entire experience.
And where should these pesukim have been written? With the other description of the movement of the camp, with the דגלים at the beginning of the ספר:
But why put these particular verses, right here? Rabbi Leibtag explains that this is what ספר חשוב הוא בפני עצמו really means:
ספר במדבר could actually have ended right here, with ובנחה יאמר if we had not looked at the Torah כתינוק הבורח מבית הספר, eager to complain about every little mishap. The Torah puts the “could have been” between our first two failures: ויסעו מהר ה׳ and ויהי העם כמתאוננים as a sort of favor to not embarrass us (the way Rashi understands the commands of the משכן are interposed between מעמד הר סיני and the עגל הזהב). But it also subtly reminds us of our failure, and of an attitude that we still feel today.
What about the place in the Torah that it “should have been”? The whole book is out of order:
Rashi explains that this is another instance where the Torah is trying to save us embarassment:
But there’s a problem with understanding this גנות. First let’s look at the continuation of the command to celebrate this single Passover in the wilderness:
גרע means to be lacking. It is used in תנ״ך for a lack of a mitzvah, specifically a mitzvah that a certain person or group cannot fulfill:
Rabbi Frand explains the problem:
So the גנות was not so much that they did not celebrate Pesach, but that they did not complain about not being able to celebrate. The contrast with the טמאים, who were also exempt from that year’s Pesach, put all the rest of the Jews in a bad light. It is exactly the same problem that we discussed before, seeing the Torah as a burden rather than an opportunity. So the real contrast is between the two complainers: those who complained about missing out on the opportunity to do a mitzvah, and those who ran away from the mitzvot to complain about the journey.
And our paragraph really belongs with the description of the דגלים, but that description really belongs here. אין זה מקומה really refers to the entire first half of the ספר. One almost gets the impression that ה׳ was giving בני ישראל as much time as possible, delaying the story of ויהי בנסע הארן with the hope that they would finally understand and they would be able to enter ארץ ישראל and ספר במדבר could end right there. But when it got the point of ויהי העם כמתאוננים it was all over, and a new generation would have to grow up in the wilderness before they could enter.
And that, perhaps is the meaning of עתידה פרשה זו שתכתב במקומה. The onus is on us, the future generations, to undo the damage that led to the displacement of this paragraph. We have to look at the mitzvot not as a burden, celebrating every קולא but as an opportunity to serve ה׳. We should, like the טמאים, feel pain if we are exempt from a mitzvah. And then we will merit שובה ה׳ רבבות אלפי ישראל, the return of the שכינה and our return to ארץ ישראל.