- Rabbi Yosef Goldin
- Duration: 7 min
Parenting from the Parsha- Parshat Behaalotcha- Going Against the Tide
- Rabbi Yosef Goldin
- Jun 14, 2022
One of the strangest passages in the entire Torah is found in this week’s parsha- as the pesukim of “Vayehu Binsoa..” and “Uvenucho Yomar..”, which describe major aspects of Am Yisrael’s desert journey, are sectioned off in the Torah by “nunim hafuchim”, “inverted nun’s”.
There is much discussion in the Midrash and Meforshim regarding the meaning of these inverted “nun’s”, and the exact nature of their purpose at this point in the text. Our questions take on added importance when we note that these two pesukim are recited in davening each time the Torah is removed from, and returned to, the Aron Kodesh. On one level, these pesukim represent the travel of Bnei Yisrael in the desert- but on another level, they also represent the journey of our nation throughout the generations.
But once again- why davka the letter “nun”, why are they inverted, and why are they inserted here?
Rabbi Norman Lamm, in what became a well-known drasha at the Manhattan Jewish Center in 1966, gives a very profound answer to this question, based on the Kabbalistic Midrash Hane’elam. The Midrash connects these inverted nun’s to the fact that the word “nun” in Aramaic means fish. Building upon this imagery, Rabbi Lamm suggests that the inverted nun’s are meant to symbolize the image of fish swimming upstream, against the tide. Typically, everything in a river goes downstream- the water, rocks, branches, etc. There is only one entity that is capable of swimming upstream, against its surroundings- the fish.
By surrounding these pesukim- which symbolize not only the physical journey of Am Yisrael through the desert but also the national journey of our people across the generations- with the inverted nun’s, the Torah is teaching us a powerful lesson, suggests Rabbi Lamm.
“The authentic Jew must be able to dissent, to keep apart, to be unpopular. When necessary, the Jew must be strong enough to oppose the tide, to swim upstream…The upstream tradition of Judaism means that we must dare to be different. It means that when religious observance is frowned upon, we must frown right back and follow the dictates of our conscience and the teachings of the Halacha. Whenever we find society in violation of the sacred ideals of Judaism, we must become the “nunin hafuchin”, those who are willing to swim upstream and not downstream.”
As Jews who choose to live in, and be a part of, the society around us, we are exposed to all sorts of values and principles. While many of those values are fully in consonance with Torah values, there are many principles in today’s society that run fundamentally counter to our values as Torah observant Jews. We are charged with developing the ability to identify those areas where society’s standards are different from ours, and to stand firm in our beliefs. In those cases, we must be willing to “swim upstream” against the tide of general society.
Swimming against the tide can be particularly challenging and lonely, notes Rabbi Lamm. “To be different, to go against the tide, often leaves man with a feeling of aloneness; but that is what makes man worthy and life worthwhile.”
It is striking to note that these words were said specifically by Rabbi Lamm, a leader of Modern Orthodoxy who championed the worldview of Torah U’Madda, the ideal of “a total commitment to the Halakhah while living in this world and participating in it fully — culturally, economically, add politically”. Because, while Rabbi Lamm firmly believed in the lechatchila value of being a part of, and learning from, the society around us; he recognized that such a life is also fraught with dangers that we must be aware of, and be prepared to fight against.
If this message was important in 1966, it is certainly more even more critical in the world in which we live today, and in which we are raising our children. As society continues to advance technologically and degenerate morally, we are faced with this greater challenge from both ends- the outside world and its allure have become even more pervasive and harder to avoid, while, at the same time, its values continue to move further away our Torah values. While we, as a community, remain committed to being a part of society, we must be extra vigilant in determining which values from the world around us we want to emulate, and which values we must fight against. We must raise our children with a sense of purpose and pride in their yahadut, and instill within them the willingness to fight against the tide, and swim upstream when necessary.
To end with the poignant words of Rabbi Lamm himself. “This, then, Is the meaning for us of the inverted letters. We must never swallow Western Civilization whole. We must always stand a bit aside…It does not mean that we can or should resign from Western Civilization. It does mean that we must keep somewhat aloof, that we must adopt a critical stance and not embrace it blindly. It means we must exercise dissent and criticism, intelligence and judgment. It means that we must confront all of modern culture, but not necessarily capitulate to it; we must face all the facts of contemporary life but select for ourselves only what is worthwhile, while rejecting all that is morally abominable, never succumbing to that which affronts our conscience as Jews and as humans. It means that “va-yehi bi'neso'a ha-aron”, the march of Judaism and Israel through history, must often be characterized by “nunin hafukhin”, by going upstream, by opposing the tides of the times.”
Wishing everyone a Shabbat Shalom!
One of the strangest passages in the entire Torah is found in this week’s parsha- as the pesukim of “Vayehu Binsoa..” and “Uvenucho Yomar..”, which describe major aspects of Am Yisrael’s desert journey, are sectioned off in the Torah by “nunim hafuchim”, “inverted nun’s”. Why davka the letter “nun”, why are they inverted, and why are they inserted here? Rabbi Normal Lamm, in one of his most famous drashot, gives an extremely profound answer- one that has an important lesson for us as parents