And it was that when the ark traveled, Moshe said Rise, o Eternal one, and Your enemies shall scatter, and Your foes shall flee before You!” (Bamidbar 10:35) 


We sing this verse when we open the aron kodesh in the synagogue before reading the Torah. The next verse, And when it [the ark] rested, he [Moshe] would say Return, o Eternal one, to the tens of thousands of Israel’” is said when we return the Torah to its ark. 


Throughout the rabbinic literature (Mishnah Yadayim 3:5, Sifrei Bamidbar, Shabbat 115b-116a, Bamidbar Rabbah) we see an insistence that these verses constitute a book in and of itself. This is the explanation given for the inverted letter nun” that brackets them. Rashi and the Talmud assert that these verses do not appear in their proper place; that they break the narrative. 


The Mishnah tells us that those verses contain enough letters to be considered a scroll or a book, and can therefore transmit tumah, ritual impurity, to ones hands.  


How are we to make sense of these teachings? After all, these verses come at the end of a description of the Israelite camp traveling and settling. What Moshe would say as the ark traveled and settled is perfectly in keeping with this theme. And why would we consider two verses to be a book of their own? And why would we say that scriptures transmit tumah? 


If we look at the background of the Mishnahs teaching that holy books transmit tumah, some of these issues may become more clearTumat yadayim, impurity of the hands, is a thing that prevents one from handling trumahfoods that are sanctified to the priests. It used to be that because trumah and Biblical scrolls were both holy objects, people would store them together, and rats would be attracted to the trumah and ruin the scrolls. The rabbis then decreed that holy books were sources of tumah so that people would stop storing food with them, and so protect them.  


This fact reframes tumah itself from defilement” or contamination” which are pejorative terms to a precious status, something that needs protecting. Ironically, this makes the tumah and kedushah, holiness, very similar concepts! Functionally, tumah is that which prohibits contact with the holy, but we also see that the holy and the impure” are both precious things that need to be treated with care, and rarely touched. 


How does this inform our current situation of the COVID-19 pandemic, coupled with heightened and impassioned attention on racism in our society? The obvious lesson for COVID-19 is that when we keep our distance from one another, it is out of care for one another, and the preciousness of our own lives and of theirs. When it comes to issues of race, the rabbis’ teaching on tumah and books of Torah can inspire us not to be so quick to grab” or appropriate other peoples narratives, or push away” peoples claims of racial injustice by rejecting them out of hand, or otherwise touch” what people are telling us about race without awareness, but to listen carefully before reacting. We are taught to treat one another with care.  


This is why two simple verses can be said to comprise a whole book of Torah. If we recognize the holiness and the tumah of two simple verses, then we will treat the whole of Torah, and each individual human being, with greater care and we will listen to one another more closely and seek understanding. 


Shabbat shalom! 

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