The Letter “Nun”


The Torah portion of Behaalotcha contains a very unique detail. One who reads the Parsha in a Chumash or even takes a look at it in a Torah scroll one will notice something quite curious.

In middle of the Parsha, at the end of Chapter Ten, we find two letters which seem to be going the wrong direction. Rabbi Avraham Sabba in his commentary the Tzror Hamor, refers to them as “backwards Nuns.”

The Talmud in Tractate Shabbat 11a explains. The Torah did not want to record consecutive instances in which the Jewish people were not behaving as they should. Therefore, as a break in the narrative, the Torah inserts these two verses, although they are clearly out of place.

However, the question is, why the letter “Nun”? Couldn’t another symbol or letter have been used?

The Tzror Hamor explains that the “backwards Nuns” are there to illustrate the root cause of the mistake made by the Jewish people. What brought them to these unfortunate circumstances; what brought them to this negative behavior?

During the course of the journey through the desert, the Clouds of Glory protected the Jewish people, shielding them from the elements and from their enemies.  This was G‑d’s method of protecting and safeguarding the Jews. Not appreciating the Clouds of Glory, what G‑d had been doing for them was the root of their downfall.

“Anan,” the Hebrew word for cloud, contains the letter “Nun” twice.  Since it was precisely the lack of acknowledgment of G‑d’s involvement and protection that brought the Jewish People to err, the main letters of the word cloud, the “Nuns” are used to bookend the out of place verses.  They both separate and explain the two unfortunate incidents in which the Jewish People did not behave as they should have.  

The Tzror Hamor continues, to further elaborate on the letter “Nun” and perhaps here we can find the remedy, how one can rectify and fix a similar situation.

The letter “Nun” is unique for another reason; it is the only letter not used to begin a verse in Psalm 145, known as “Ashrei.” While every other letter of the Aleph bet is there and accounted for, the “Nun” is conspicuously absent.

The Talmud in Tractate Berachot explains why. The “Nun” is also the first letter of the word “Nophel” which means to fall. Not wanting to mention the failures and shortcomings of the Jewish people, King David skipped that verse entirely, and instead utilized the “Nun” in the next verse, which begins with the letter “Samech,” “Somech Hashem lechol haNophlim… G‑d supports all who fall.” In truth, even when we feel we have fallen and getting back up is impossible, G‑d is there with us, helping us.

During a Chasidic discourse on Purim in 1957, the Lubavitcher Rebbe explained this concept with the following parable. One who wishes to prevent something or someone from falling, must ensure that the object of support beneath it is heavier and stronger then the object being propelled downward. And, if something has already fallen, there must be strong support from below to help it rise again.

This logic can further be applied in the realm of ideas and thoughts. A teacher wishing to correct a student who has erred in a calculation or method, must first find the root of the mistake and correct it before the student is able to reach the proper conclusion.

To lift up or to correct, to stand up when one has fallen, doesn’t require outside inspiration or support; the ability to get up and stand strong is always with us.

Chassidic thought explains that when we think we are in a predicament of “Nophel,” dejected and alone, it is within that very environment that we have to search for G‑d.  This will not require miracles or intervention from above, but finding our strength and support in our current situation.

As in the case of a fallen object or wayward idea, the ability to correct and go forward comes from below and within.

Shabbat Shalom!