Away From Evil
This week’s portion features a separate Book of the Torah. The Torah is commonly referred to as the Five Books of Moshe, which are: Genesis (Bereshis), Exodus (Shmos), Leviticus (Vayikra), Numbers (Bamidbar), and Deuteronomy (Devarim). Each of these Books contains its own unique message.
The Talmud tells us (Shabbos 116a) that in fact there are Seven Books of the Torah. The Book of Numbers is not one book, but is divided into three. The first part is from the beginning of Bamidbar until the 10th Chapter, verse 35. The third part is from the beginning of the 11th chapter until the end of Bamidbar. The second part consists of two verses, chapter 10, verses thirty five and thirty six: "When the Ark would journey, Moshe said: Arise G-d, and let your foes be scattered, let those who hate You, flee before You. And when it rested he would say: Reside tranquilly G-d, among the thousands of Israel." The Talmud explains (ibid.) that these verses were placed here in order to make an interruption between bad things. Previous to these verses, the Jewish people angered G-d by the manner in which they left Sinai (like children running from school). And after these verses, they complained about the manna, and believed the spies in their lies about Israel. G-d placed this passage here so that there would not be three negative instances in a row.
But why pick these specific verses? And what is the unique message of this Book of the Torah?
King Dovid writes in Psalms (Ch. 34): turn away from evil and do good. Why must one "turn away from evil" in order to do good? Every person is made up of different character traits. But one thing common in most people is the need for cynicism, to mock. Normally this is a very bad trait; however, there is one occasion where it is encouraged: mocking idolatry. We were created with this potentially repugnant trait, because it is also a necessary trait: to see foolishness and/or evil and to respond accordingly.
Part of embracing the Torah is rejecting other ways of life. The Rambam (Maimonides; Laws of Idolatry Ch. 1) explains that when Avraham was spreading monotheism he used three steps: 1. He challenged the validity of the people’s idolatrous beliefs. 2. He broke their idols 3. He taught them about G-d. The first step was to "turn away from evil" - to point out the absurdity. Then it was possible to teach them about G-d.
This separate Book of the Torah is teaching us this process. The turning away from evil would happen as the Ark would scatter its foes (both literally and figuratively). And when the Ark would rest, after it had been integrated into the Jewish people, G-d resided tranquilly amongst them, thus enabling the ultimate performance of good.
It is specifically placed to interrupt these negative incidents to teach us there is a place for negativity. But if the negativity is used the wrong way, it will be disastrous.
This is a particularly pertinent message today, when through the wonders of communication, every ideology now has its own platform, and we as Jews must know what to embrace and what to discard.
Rabbi Jay Spero is the rabbi of the Saranac Synagogue in Buffalo.