Parshat Beha’alotcha has had a special place in my heart for several years. It was the last parsha I heard in Israel before heading back to America from my gap year in Israel. Finally, the reality sunk in: everything I had learned that year, all of it was meant to be preparation for the next stage of life. The immersive environment of paired study sessions, long nights of studying Torah for its own sake, and continuous guidance from dedicated, dextrous teachers, was soon going to be a memory. What did one of my teachers, Rabbi Reuven Taragin, have to say on the day that he knew that we were each about to go our own way?
He brought the story of the two nuns (as in the letter nun). Toward the end of the parsha, two verses are sectioned off by an upright and upside down nun. The question is – why? Rashi says that the nuns are there to show that these verses are not in their proper place. Then why have the verses there to begin with? To separate between one punishment and the next..
Why these verses in particular? There are many answers, however, this is the one that Rabbi Targin shared with us:
The Jewish people were complaining for a very understandable, human reason: they were about to face tremendous change. The routines and realities of Egypt would now officially be behind them – everything ahead was new and unknown. With change comes transition, and with transition comes transformation. Transformation takes hard work, and the willingness to accept that we as people will be different from the people we were or are. Instead of positively anticipating changes, Bnei Yisrael relieved their concerns in the easiest way possible – they complained.
The verses between the nuns are the ideal way in which Bnei Yisrael would have responded; it is the way they should have responded if they were looking forward. Instead, they chose to look backward on all that they had before – the fish and the meat of Egypt. The elements of the known and the certain were much easier to grapple with than the newness ahead. These verses are here because Moshe believed and knew there would be many reasons to be optimistic. The past was the past and the present, though very different and sure to come with its own challenges, held a higher quality of life. He was the lone optimist, the only one who was ready to put one foot in front of the next without comparing the present to the past.
Thousands of years have passed since that moment, but human nature has not. Rabbi Taragin explained that once we left seminary, and as we got older, change would present itself over and over again. Oftentimes, change isn’t simple, and presents more than one path to take. This uncertainty can be paralyzing, so, people don’t want to move forward. Instead, they find reasons to complain. Unfortunately, this is how many people behave, and aside for making life less pleasant for those around them, they overpower the voices like Moshe’s, who believe that Hashem will guide us toward that which is best for us. It is those people who will have the determination and faith to move forward, and move Klal Yisrael forward, despite the unavoidable difficulties.
Though I never had the privilege of meeting R’ Aharon Lichtenstein zt”l, he deeply impacted the lives of many of my role models, teachers, and colleagues. As a fellow (much less learned) student of English literature, I admired the breadth and depth of his literary knowledge and appreciation, and how he seamlessly infused its best with Torah. Above all, R’ Lichtenstein embodied that a Jew can be devout and unwaveringly committed outside of a ghetto, and, that the Diaspora Jew can plant seeds of Torah in the Holy Land, and build a thriving threshold of Torah study for natives and immigrants alike. He moved forward with determination and faith. As we move into this new era, without R’ Lichtenstein, let us continue his forward-facing attitude, and live up to the ideal of the verses between the nuns.
The audio version of Rabbi Reuven Taragin’s shiur (Hebrew): http://www.yutorah.org/lectures/lecture.cfm/794800/Rabbi_Reuven_Taragin/Beha’alotcha_