65. Behaalotekha IV - INVERTED LETTERS

TWO OF THE most revered verses in the Siddur are taken from our Sidrah. I am referring to vayehi binesoa which is recited before the Torah is taken from the Ark, and uvenucho yomar which is repeated when the Torah is returned to the Ark. They contain only eighty-five letters, and yet the Talniud speaks of them as being a sefer bifnei atzmo, a book unto itself. The rabbis note also that these verses are marked off by nunin hafukhin, by the Hebrew letter nun in an inverted position. They say that herein one finds "the glory of God and the basis of the world" (Sabbath 116a).

The last comment is rather puzzling. How do inverted letteis reveal the glory of God and the basis of the world? A number of commentaries offer meaningful interpretations of this text. I will limit my discussion this morning to two of these. One maintains that the letter nun is the abbreviation of ner--a candle. One nun refers to ner hashem--the light of God; the other to nishmat adam--the soul of man. When these two candles are kept in an erect and proper position there is security, happiness and peace in the world. But when they are hafukhin-inverted-they can either cause a fire of destruction or become extinguished, thus causing darkness to envelop man.

The tragedy of the world today is that the nunin are hafukhin. There are conflagrations of war and acts of terror that paralyze and cause fearful darkness in many parts of the earth because of the inverted nerot. When a huge trailer travels in the dark of night without its headlights on, it will prove to be a dreadful menace. It will crush others, before it will finally plunge and destroy itself.

The period in which we live can be characterized by the phrase vayehi binesoa. It is the age of "mobility of troops and weapons" either because the nunin are misused or because they are extinguished. In the first case they cause raging fires of hatred and war; in the second they bring the plagues of darkness, fear and oppression to man. When the ner hashem and the nishmat adam are snuffed out or mishandled, there is misery in the world. There is no other way to bring about the ideal expressed in the second verse uvenucho yomar, to usher in an era of menuchah and peace, than to bring back the nunin to their right position and to rekindle them.

The second interpretation of the text has a significant message for the Jew. In the language of the rabbis, the nun represents a fish. The life of a fish depends in a large measure on its vitality and ability to swim upstream. The other day I watched an educational film on television on the dramatic life of the salmon-how it braves all dangers to navigate to the place of its origin to spawn and thus perpetuate its kind. If the salmon permits itself to be swept along by the current of the rapids or the tide it will be scuttled and squashed. It is only because the Creator has endowed the fish with the precious instinct of self-preservation, whereby it is able to swim upstream against the forces of the billowing waves, that it can thrive and survive.

Jews have been compared to fish: veyidgu lorov bekerev haaretz (Gen. 48:16)). We must be nunin hafukhin--capable and willing to swim upstream, to resist the temptation to take the easy way-of going with the tide of fads and crazes which lead to the dissolution of our teachings and the scuttling of our race.

My dear young friend! You are about to begin a new journey in life. It is the time of vayehi binesoa in your career as a Jew. \Ve hope that it will be a long, useful and happy one. The success of that journey will depend on your resolve to light the candle of God and your soul. As a Jew you will have to resist the temptation of running with the herd and swimming with the tide. May the loyalty to Torah and Mitzvot that you have seen at home and taught at the Yeshiva, inspire you to lead a good life and help establish the foundations of a saner and better world under God. Amen.

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