First, to the text (Num 10:35-6):
35: When the Ark would travel, Moses would say: “Arise, Ado-nai, and scatter your enemies, and may your foes flee from before you!”
36: And when [the Ark] rested, he would say: “Return, Ado-nai, to the myriad thousands of Israel!”
These verses are familiar to us; we recite them as part of the Torah service every time the scroll(s) are removed and replaced from the Aron Kodesh. But contextually, really? Asking G-d to scatter our enemies as we prepare to read the Torah? Begging to have the Divine presence restored after(!) we read? Is there something missing here?
Verse 35: Chazal tell us that, instead of being carried in its normal place at the center of the procession, the Ark was initially carried at its front. This was done as a bolster to the nation’s growing sense of security under G-d’s protection. Going forward, however, the focus would change. Instead of being a defense against military foes, snakes, or scorpions (as per various sources), Moshe’s declaration can best be described as an embodiment of the mission of Torah. When Israel moved from place to place as they traversed the wilderness, they were similarly moving from a place of known quantities and relative safety on an uncertain and unpredictable journey. What types of physical, spiritual and cultural adversity would they face at their next resting point? The underlying message is that the guidance given us by the Torah is the defense against the misappropriations and distractions with which our spiritual “enemies” can distract us. When we lift the Torah from its resting place, we are open to the suggestions of transience.
When the Torah comes to rest, however, we restore our equanimity. As Moshe expresses in Verse 36, G-d returns to the multitudes of Israel when the nation and its Torah are at peace. Absent the distractions and diversions of our past situations, we can focus instead on our present and future. What a blessing it would be for us to be able to look only forward, without regard to any suffering we experienced in generations past?
The Talmud describes these two verses as an entirely separate “book” of the Bible. I would agree. In two familiar verses, Moshe delivers a beautiful summary of our relationship to G-d, Torah, and peoplehood, now and forever.
May we always be always able to lift the Torah from its current resting place to new heights.
May the Torah always rest among our multitudes at peace.
And may you have a Shabbat Shalom.
Rabbi/Hazzan David B. Sislen