When the Ark went forth, Moses said, “Arise, O God, and scatter your enemies! Let your foes flee before You!” When it came to rest, he said, “Return, O God, the myriads of Israel’s thousands” – this week’s Torah portion (Numbers 10:35-36).
Whoever reads this chapter daily with proper intention will not be hurt, even when he may travel to a place of thieves, be at sea or in another dangerous location - Emek HaMelech Gate I section 59
Life can often be quite difficult. Who amongst us has not had to contend, at times, with the tentacles of darkness? Whether it be tangible enemies, driven by violence, hate, envy and greed, or psychological demons and fears; whether it be emotional losses and betrayals, or pain and suffering due to health and other frailties, or the basic dangers that lurk about, much about life can present quite a daunting challenge.
Indeed, the first and still the largest best-seller of the modern-day so-called self-help book genre, The Road Less Traveled, begins with the line: Life is difficult. And many people, who never got beyond the first line, cite these words as the reason that made this book so memorable for them. I guess life’s difficulties resonate with everyone and just confirming the fact goes a long way.
Long before The Road Less Traveled people knew life was difficult. Many, many books over the ages have documented the fact, beginning with the Bible (which actually remains the largest best-seller of all time, to the point that they don’t even count it in the charts; but that’s a story for another time).
It must be stated that there is also much beauty in life. Just witness the delight and joy of newlyweds or new parents. We all hopefully have many radiant experiences – of love and splendor, both in our personal and social lives, moments of peace and kindness, encounters with nobility or the calm of a simple walk in nature. Yet, despite the beauty, without invalidating it, the pains of life remain a haunting force, that all too often overwhelms us.
What can we do about that? Denial and sticking one’s head in sand hoping for the best is not the option of the wise. Faith and support of others are surely excellent tools to combat adversity. But are there measures we can take to minimize (or even prevent) suffering, are there actions we can do to counter the forces of darkness?
In an idiosyncratic section consisting of two verses, this week’s Torah portion provides us with a relevant answer and a practical approach to facing hardships.
As the Jews began their long and arduous journey through the harsh Sinai wilderness, a “great, terrifying desert, where there were snakes, vipers, scorpions and thirst, with no water” (Deuteronomy 8:15), they were led by the Holy Ark which contained the Torah within (the Tablets, both the second complete ones and the first broken ones).
In dramatic fashion, the Torah describes the scene of this journey:
When the Ark went forth, Moses said, “Arise, O God, and scatter your enemies! Let your foes flee before You!” When it came to rest, he said, “Return, O God, the myriads of Israel’s thousands” (Numbers 10:35-36).
The power of these two verses is captured by the 17th century Kabbalist, Rabbi Naftali Hertz Bachrach of Frankfurt. In his classic work, Emek HaMelech, he writes: Whoever reads this chapter daily with proper intention will not be hurt, even when he may travel to a place of thieves, at sea or in another dangerous location.
These two verses capture the challenging story of our lives – and we actually say these verses till this day every time the Torah is taken out from the synagogue Ark: Despite life’s hardships, we do not come unarmed. The Holy Ark leads the way, and in its wake “enemies” are scattered and “foes” flee. The Torah – called “Torah of life” and the “Torah of light” – illuminates the dark and lonely paths of existence and empowers us with direction, fortitude and commitment to make it through the most challenging experiences of life.
Torah is not just a book or a Bible. It is a blueprint. A spiritual guide. Just as every machine comes with an operator’s manual, Torah is life’s operator’s manual, offering us the inner workings of existence and of ourselves. Every character, every story, every episode relates another aspect of your spiritual DNA, teaching you what “makes you tick” and the power of your soul; a manual that instructs us as to which paths will make our “machine” work best and which ones will not.
This interpretation of Torah may seem new to some. Our schools, after all, do not teach us that Torah is a spiritual blueprint (only written in cryptic form and “speaking in the language of man’). But frankly, without seeing Torah as telling our spiritual story, what relevance can an ancient text, relating events that happened in a different time and place, have to our lives today?
Yes, life presents many difficulties, often harsh ones. But the most dangerous of them all is ignorance, and the confusion and demoralization it creates. Look at any suffering and you will see that often the worst part of it is the sense of loneliness and despair it creates, the plaguing doubts whether a remedy can be found, the agonizing over an unknown future, the hopelessness of it all. Torah illuminates the inner path, and as such may not always take away the pain, but allows us to see beyond it, helping us transcend it, infusing with hope and fortitude to fight on. And despite the questions, it empowers us to forge ahead and thrive, not just survive. This is the power and blessing of a spiritual blueprint – the power of faith, but faith that comes together with a guide that directs our actions.
The ultimate way to protect against any adversary is to come armed with spiritual strength and resilience. By holding onto and following the lead of the Ark – to the point that we actually declare this commitment by stating the words “when the Ark went forth…” – we march not alone, but with the enormous might of the timeless Torah, which has carried us for over three millennia, through the worst and best of times.
“When you are bound above,” our masters say, “you will not fall below.”
If you wish you can stop reading here (not that you need my permission). Especially if your attention span has been taxed.
But if you read on you will find that the story is far more interesting and far-reaching.
The story behind the story of fortitude in the face of adversity, the power behind the power of the Torah, can be appreciated by a rare anomaly, occurring only once in the entire Torah: The two verses in this week’s chapter are preceded and followed by two inverted Hebrew letters Nun, like this [ ], enclosing this section, as it were, between two brackets, separating them from the verses before and after.
Explains the Talmud: For this section G-d placed symbols above and below... because it ranks as a significant book unto itself (Talmud, Shabbat 115b).
[In effect, this renders the Torah into seven books. 1) Genesis, 2) Exodus, 3) Leviticus. 4) The beginning of the book of Numbers up to these two verses, 5) These two verses, 6) The rest of the book of Numbers, and 7) Deuteronomy].
But what is the deeper meaning and significance of these brackets? Why would two verses be singled out to create an entire new book of Torah?
The mystics offer a fascinating explanation in the meaning of these brackets – as elucidated in a discourse which was delivered by the Rebbe Rashab 100 years ago this week (1909):
The two brackets combined create an image of a square. This square symbolizes the “square garment” which explains the mystery of existence.
In the words of the above-cited Kabbalistic work, Emek Hamelech:
This garment carries the secret of the square and closed mem , because the garment is square, which then divides into two and becomes two nuns, and these are the two nuns written in the chapter “when the ark went forth…,” which is shaped like an open inverted nun like this [ ]…
This constitutes a great secret: Whoever reads this chapter daily with kavanah (proper intention) will not be hurt, even when he may travel to a place of thieves, be at sea or in another dangerous location. As long as he keeps in mind the two-abovementioned nuns that hint to the two halves of the garment. This is the secret of Moses’ prayer, “when the Ark went forth, Moses said, “Arise, O God, and scatter your enemies. Let your foes flee before You,” and also the Rashbi said that “taking out the Torah scroll in public opens up the gates of compassion, which is why we say this prayer when the ark is opened… (Emek HaMelech Gate I section 59. See also Mikdash Melech, Zohar I 15a).
Picture a garment – a beautiful tapestry – both concealing and revealing. Concealing and revealing something very intimate and profound beneath. This “garment” is made up of two sections, one translucent, the other opaque. Existence hangs in the balance.
Kabbalists use the example of this square garment to explain the bridge between our perception of reality and the deeper higher reality that lies behind the curtain.
At times we all sense something “behind the scenes” – a force above and beyond our own existence. But true reality is like a brilliant light, an unbridled flow of energy. Unshielded we would be blinded by the light, overwhelmed by the energy force, not merely unable to see, but unable to be. Our independent existence could not survive, our independent sense of self would cease to exist were we submerged in the boundless energy of higher reality.
Consciousness, therefore, is actually a state of concealment. Our sense of existence – the feeling that “I am” – is possible only due to shrouded energy. Paradoxically, true awareness is not what we fathom, but that which we don’t fathom; to be awake means to be aware that we are asleep. True awareness is when we are aware of something beyond our awareness.
Yet, we are not trapped in an airtight prison. A delicate drape conceals the higher reality. As you look at the garment you sense that it is beckoning you while protecting you, drawing you closer while keeping you away. But when you look closely, you can discern the fine fibers, threads and filaments engraved in the cloth, which in turn allow you to sense the powerful rumblings behind the screen.
Our life’s work on this side of the “curtain” is to channel and draw into our beings and our environments the light and energy from behind the curtain, in effect reconnecting both sides of the curtain.
This “dressing room” is the basis of an entire mystical treatise, which explains the magnitude of the “significant book onto itself” of the two verses in our chapter.
With its own elegant brand of poetry, the mystics paint a graceful portrait – call it mystical poetry – that allows us to envision our limited perception juxtaposed against the backdrop of a higher reality, with an opaque curtain in between.
With this imagery we return to the two-bracketed verses:
The two verses, “when the ark went forth…” framed by the two nuns, are brackets, which together create a square  (the closed mem in the Hebrew alphabet). This square forms a “significant book onto itself,” and this “book” tells the story of our lives, as captured in the portrait of the garment that both conceals and reveals the light beyond.
As the Midrash explains it: From whence was light created? G-d wrapped Himself in a white tallit (a shawl) and he shone forth from one end of the world to the next, as it says (Psalms 104:2) You are clothed with light like a robe (Midrash, Shemos Rabba 50:1).
Why the wonder about the creation of light more than all other creations? Because light reflects and is drawn to the Divine, thus begging the question, how can light be drawn down into creation when its personality is to ascend upward, like a flame that expires without a grounding wick? The answer is that the Divine “dresses up” in the garment of light, thus allowing the light to be drawn down and contained in our finite existence.
The garment of light is the Torah, which manifests and “clothes” the Divine in ways that can be contained by our limited beings (see Tanya ch. 52). When you read the verse carefully, “You are clothed with light like a robe,” two dimensions are described: 1) The Divine is clothed with light, and this is 2) like a robe.
These refer to two dimensions in Torah, the revealed and the esoteric, the outer and the inner, which correspond to the two sections of the “garment,” the two letters nun. Like any effective intermediary, the garment must have an element of the source it is emanating and transmitting – the light, and an element that allows the light to be contained by the recipient – the robe.
The “outer” revealed dimension of Torah teaches us the mechanics and the rules, the do’s and don’ts, of life. The “inner” hidden dimension lifts us to the light. The outer is finite; the inner infinite. Both are necessary. One provides revelation and transcendence, the other concealment and grounding. Without the inner we can succumb to the trappings of material life and its seductive powers. The mechanics alone are not always immune to self-interest. Without the outer our existence would be annihilated in face of the blinding light. The outer manifests and contains Torah-light in the defined structure and boundaries of existence. The challenge is not to escape life and its difficulties, not to deny the harsh wilderness, but to enter it, to tame, sublimate and refine the arid desert and its toxicity.
This is the deeper significance of the two verses – the book of its own – framed by the two nuns: These two verses encompass the central theme of the entire Torah, and are thus framed like a “square garment,” which can also be seen as a mini Torah scroll, within which is etched the two letters nun, corresponding to the two dimensions in Torah, the inner and outer, “light” and “robe,” each containing 50 (nun) gates of understanding:
“When the Ark will travel” refers to the light’s journey to Earth. The ark in Hebrew is “ohron,” which consists of the letters ohr (light) and nun. Its journey through the wilderness reflects the journey of each of our lives through this dark universe, each of us with our set of particular challenges. [These two verses also consist of 85 letters, the gematria of “ha’tevah,” the Hebrew for nature, signifying that Torah refines the nature of existence].
But we come well prepared to face all adversaries. With the light of the ark leading the way, we have the power to “scatter” all enemies” and cause all foes to flee: Armed with both “brackets” (the two letters nun) we are able to be both immersed in this world and remain above it, immunizing us and blunting the stark realities of life on Earth.
And we recite these verses each time we open the ark, telling us that at all times, even today, the journey of the Ark leads our way and protects us from harm.
To survive and grow in our harsh world we need two things: revelation and concealment. And this is what this “significant book” offers us: Framed by two nuns the book is a “square garment” that reveals as it conceals the higher light.
One of many practical applications of this message is in the way it affects our attitudes and relationships: How should we tackle a difficult situation or person? Should we ignore it or fight it? When faced with something that reflects the dark side of life, a painful experience or a person resistant to love, should we run the other way or fight and overwhelm the adversary? When our child has done a serious wrong, do you excuse or scold the child?
The bracketed “book” teaches us a third path: You have the power to look head-on at the challenge, without fear or retreat, and then find a way to present a loving message in ways that the child can contain.
The same with the other situations: We were sent – purposefully sent – on a journey to a wilderness, a world with many difficulties, precisely for the purpose of sublimating and refining this hostile environment, for which we were given all the necessary tools. A challenge need not cause us to go from one extreme to the next, escapism or war.
Many protective measures and defensive strategies have been posited over the ages to shield us from harm. The Torah’s approach is that the best defense is offense – wise offense. Preventive rather than protective measures, is the way that this week’s chapter teaches us the secret of the “garment” approach: Conceal while you reveal. Craft solutions in shapes and forms that can be contained. And above all, follow and connect to a force beyond our own resources, and draw that into your life, clothe and integrate the light into your structures.
When you stay the course, led by the Ark, surrounded by its brackets, nothing can harm you.