Behaalotecha: “Throwing the Book” at Our Enemies

7,500 miles, and perhaps an even greater distance in liturgical philosophy, separate the two synagogues to which I belong.  One is a Conservative (Masorti) congregation in Jerusalem, a less-than 20-minute walk from where the Ark of the Covenant once stood in the Temple.  The other is a Reform congregation in California.

In the former synagogue, verse 10:35 of the book of Numbers, part of this week’s Torah portion (Beha’alotecha), which is included in the Conservative siddur’s Torah service, is recited when the Torah is removed from the ark to be read: 

“Whenever the ark set out, Moses said, ‘Rise up, Lord! May your enemies be scattered; may those who hate you flee before you.’” 

In the latter Reform synagogue, this impassioned declaration is omitted from the Torah service and is not recited – except, so far as I know, in a low voice, by me!   

This verse and the next, “Whenever it came to rest, he said, ‘Return, Lord, to the countless thousands of Israel,’” may reflect the ancient custom of taking one’s god into battle, e.g. 1 Samuel 4-6 (albeit, in that instance, the enemies didn’t scatter and the Philistines captured the Ark.)  

In Torah, these two verses are preceded by inverted letter nuns.  By tradition, these two verses are actually a separate book of Torah, as are the preceding and following verses of Numbers, making seven books rather than five.  (This would explain the verse in Prov. 9:1, which speaks of Wisdom (traditionally interpreted as Torah) hewing out her “seven pillars.”  Variants of verse 35 can be found in Psalms 68:2 and 132:8.  According to Rashi, this passage was placed here so as not to have three Jewish sins in succession.)  

So, the Conservative ritual is to recite an “entire book of Torah” – “throwing the book at our enemies,” as it were, whenever the Torah is removed from the ark; the Reform siddur omits this.  Why? 

I was raised in a peaceful, post-World War II, pre-draft Southern California suburb, in a politically liberal household.  I attended a large, mainstream Reform synagogue.  Even though my community and schools were overwhelmingly Christian and conservative, I don’t recall experiencing any anti-Semitism.  

Although I engaged in little, if any, liturgical philosophizing as a synagogue religious school student and bar mitzvah trainee, I suspect that the idea of characterizing the Torah as a Divine weapon against our “enemies” (whether physical or ideological) would have seemed completely inappropriate to a liberal, progressive movement that felt free to depart from tradition.  

The verse, “Rise up, Lord! May your enemies be scattered; may those who hate you flee before you“ must have struck the Reform movement as strident, militaristic, divisive, maybe even a bit paranoid.   Certainly, particularistic/parochial and elitist, given the clear implication that “G-d is with us” – and us only.   G-d forbid, it might even imply an approval of Jewish “holy war,” even though, to be honest, many of the wars described in the Hebrew Bible were exactly that.  

Why would the Reform movement wish to emphasize (glorify?) violent religious conflict among peoples?  I suspect that this is among the principal reasons the Reform siddur excluded this “book of the Torah.”  

Even though I distain militarism and religious fanaticism, and it has certainly been historically dangerous to Jews among many other peoples, I no longer view that verse ‘Rise up, Lord! May your enemies be scattered; may those who hate you flee before you negatively.   Rather, I now appreciate it and, as I noted, insert it on my own, when necessary.  

I see it as a sober acknowledgement that we, the Jewish people, have always had, and will always have, powerful enemies dedicated to our death and destruction.  We have also always had, and will always have, enemies dedicated to prevailing ideologically.  We therefore need all the help we can get to foil our enemies! I don’t like to think that way, and it’s counter to my comfortable, sheltered, Jew-tolerant (or better) life experience.  But it’s historical and current reality. 

As Jews, we are obligated to pursue justice and peace.  But we are naïve and dangerously complacent if we underestimate, or worse, ignore, the real threats to our people and values.   

Although I feel safe in Israel, that is only because Israel is militarily strong and backed, thank G-d, by the world’s strongest superpower.  I am increasingly concerned that Jewish life in America, as thankfully blessed and peaceful (with few exceptions) as it is, seduces us into a “Can’t we all get along?” outlook when it comes to Israel, the Palestinians, and neighboring countries.  Halevei! If only!  But our history shows that all of us will never “all get along.”  

To state what should be obvious, but seemingly gets understated or lost, Israel isn’t America!  The Middle East isn’t North America, nor Europe.  Egypt, Gaza, Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon are not to Israel what Canada and Mexico are to the US!   One might even say, the Palestinians are not to Israel what Native Americans were to the US after independence.  

I just bought today’s weekend Jerusalem Post to read over Shabbat.  Its banner headline reads “Compromise for peace, Kerry urges Netanyahu, Abbas.”  I fervently hope that the “Peace Process” (?) will move forward, although I am very skeptical.  I want the Jewish people to live peacefully everywhere, especially in Israel.  I hope that members of my own family, current and future, will live here someday -- in peace.  

Yet, whereas tolerance and compromise are essential elements of the American psyche and its multicultural society, they aren’t essential elements among neighbors in this part of the world, and have never been, so far as we know.  We will continue to have mortal enemies here and can never afford to downplay that fact of life and death.   

And so, I pray, “May the enemies of peace, and of the Jewish people, be scattered, and may those who hate them flee before the power of the principles of Torah and Judaism.”   May I suggest that when the Torah is removed from the Ark during your next Torah service, if your siddur doesn't include the powerful “Book of Torah” verse, “Rise up, Lord! May your enemies be scattered; may those who hate you flee before you,“ you might consider saying it!   

Shabbat shalom from Jerusalem!       

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A bird that you set free may be caught again, but a word that escapes your lips will not return.
Jewish Proverb