The Message of the Backward “Nuns” by Rabbi Ezra Wiener


Many of the commentaries have sought to solve the mystery of the backward “Nuns” (the 14th letter in the Hebrew alphabet) that bookend the section in the Torah which mentions the traveling of the Aron and Moshe’s declaration and prayer during this event (BeMidbar 10:35-36).

Rashi (ad loc. s.v. VaYhi BiNso’a HaAron) quotes the Gemara (Shabbat 116a) and explains the backward “Nuns” in the following way: “…Asah Lo Simani’ot MiLefanav UMiLeAcharav Lomar SheEin Zeh Mekomo,” “…The symbols (“Nuns”) that appear before and after [the section of how Bnei Yisrael traveled] represent its misplacement.” Hashem strategically placed the “Nuns” in this section of the Torah in order to separate the amazing journey of Bnei Yisrael with the Aron in the desert from two acts of insubordination from Bnei Yisrael. The former of these acts, according to Rashi, is derived from the phrase, “VaYis’u MeiHar Hashem,” “And they traveled from the mountain of Hashem” (10:33), which refers to the Eirev Rav, a group of Egyptians and outcasts who journeyed with Bnei Yisrael to and from Har Sinai who complained about the lack of meat in the desert. The latter defiant act was due to the Mit’onenim, members of Bnei Yisrael who sought to remove themselves from the rest of the nation by complaining about their exhaustion from the constant traveling (11:1).

Ramban agrees with Rashi’s overall assertion, but disagrees with his claim that the first rebellious act was due to the Eirev Rav’s complaint about the lack of meat, as this is written after the section of “VaYhi BiNso’a”, rather than before it. Ramban suggests that the act of defiance that is to be derived from the phrase, “VaYis’u MeiHar Hashem”, is that Bnei Yisrael took leave from Har Sinai, “KeTinok HaBorei’ach MiBeit HaSeifer,” “Like a child flees from school.” Ramban explains that Bnei Yisrael quickly and anxiously left Har Sinai after they were given the Aseret HaDibrot, lest Hashem contemplate additional Mitzvot to “inflict” upon them.

In his Tiferet Yonatan, Rav Yonatan Eybeschutz explains that the section of “VaYhi BiNso’a” itself teaches a defiance of Bnei Yisrael. This section begins with the word “VaYhi,” “And it was”, a language which signals approaching calamity and misfortune. Rav Eybeschutz explains the following: “Ki Nasa’at HaAron Min HaMachaneh Hayah Pur’anut VeTzarah LeYisra’eil SheLo Zachu Lihyot HaAron BeTocham,” “This section foreshadows a time when the Aron would “travel” away from the camp. Although Bnei Yisrael currently were privileged to have the Aron in their midst, there would come a time in the future when the Aron would be hidden and Bnei Yisrael would no longer have its protection. It is at that time that we will need Moshe’s prayer, “Rise up Hashem… and cause Your enemies to flee from Your face” (10:35). Our behavior will determine whether we are privileged to have the Aron. In its absence, we must rely only on Tefillah and Mitzvah observance. If we are lax in these areas, then we are ultimately to blame for our Nefillah (downfall).

The Gemara (Berachot 60b) adds: “Mipnei Mah Lo Ne’emar Nun BeAshrei Mipnei SheYeish Bah Mefaltan Shel Sonai Yisraeil, Dichtiv Naflah Lo Tosif Kum Betulot Yisra’eil,” “Why don’t we say [a phrase starting with] ‘Nun’ in Ashrei? Since it represents the errors of [Bnei] Yisrael [in the desert], as it is written, ‘[Yisra’eil] has fallen, and not even its young girls will be able to get back up.’” Our “Nuns”, therefore, represent the Nefillah of our people (R”L) if our actions have caused the Aron to travel from the camp and abandon us.

The fact that the “Nuns” are backward can be explained based on the Targum from the last Pasuk of Shir HaShirim: “Berach Dodi UDemeih Lecha LiTzvi O LeOfer HaAyalim Al Harei Vesamim,” “Flee quickly my beloved, like a gazelle or young hart, to the mountains of spices” (8:14). In this Pasuk, Bnei Yisrael ask Hashem, our beloved, to quickly go to and bring the Ge’ulah. Interestingly, Hashem is compared to a deer. The Targum explains, “DeBeIdan DaAchi Mistakeil BeChorehah,” “as it is running, it looks behind it.” Although Hashem and His Aron may run ahead of us and leave our midst because of our actions, He is always looking back at our pain and suffering.

This is the image which the backwards “Nuns” portray. Although there will be times of Nefillah in which we do not experience divine intervention, the backward “Nuns” remind us that even during these times Hashem is looking back in our direction, waiting to see if we take the steps to catch up to Him.

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