Every letter in the Torah is accounted for. One extra or one missing letter would render it pasul — disqualified — for use. Occasionally dots appear over a word, which our Rabbis explain to be a signpost to help us understand the intention of the text. In this week’s parshah, Beha’alotecha we find something unique regarding two well-known verses. The first is recited in all synagogues when the Torah is taken out of the Ark, and the second is said in many synagogues when the Torah is returned to its place. The two verses are separated from the rest of the Torah by means of two inverted nuns, one before and one after them.

The Sages in Gemara (Shabbat 116a) explain that this is because these verses logically seem to belong in the narrative of the tribal formations recorded in the first parshah of Chumash Bamidbar. They were, however, placed here in order to make an interruption between two passages recording iniquities of the Jewish people.

In fact, since these two verses were set off from the rest of the Torah, the Gemara speaks of this passage as a separate “book,” indicating that it has a message of its own.

While this accounts for the placement of the passage here, it does not explain why specifically the letter nun was used to indicate the break in continuity, and why the nuns are inverted.

Permit me to use this opportunity to share with you a very interesting interpretation I came across which will also explain the message the Torah is implying.

In Aramaic, “nun” means “fish.” In the verses immediately following the set-off section, the Jews complained “we remember the dagah — fish — [that we ate in Egypt free of charges 11:5].” The Targum Onkelos interprets the word “dagah”“nunaya.”

The life of a fish depends in a large measure on its ability to swim upstream. It braves all dangers to navigate to the place of its origin to spawn and thus perpetuate its kind. If a fish permits itself to be swept along by the current of the rapids or the tide it will perish. It is only because Hashem has endowed the fish with the precious instinct of self-preservation, whereby it is able to swim upstream against the forces of the billowing waves, that it can survive.

Jews have been compared to fish. Our father Yaakov blessed his children that “veyidgu larov bekerev haaretz” — “may they proliferate abundantly like fish within the land” (Bereishit 48:16). Now one may intelligently ask, is the fish’s habitat not in the water? On land they can’t exist. So why did he say “within the land?”

What Yaakov meant was that wherever destiny may bring us “bekerev ha’aretz” — “within the land” — we should possess the quality of the fish. We must be nunin hafuchin — capable and willing to swim upstream (i.e. against the stream) — that is, to resist the temptation to take the easy way of going with the tide and following the fads and crazes which lead, G‑d forbid, to the dissolution of our teachings and the scuttling of our nation.

My dear Chatan and Kallah! You are about to begin a new journey in life. It is the time of vayehi binesoa in your career as husband and wife. We hope that it will be a long, useful, and happy one. The success of that journey will depend on your resolve to resist the temptation of running with the herd and swimming with the tide. May the loyalty to Torah and mitzvot that you have seen at your homes and which was taught at the Torah institutions you attended inspire you to live a life according to Torah and Mitzvot even when it may require of you to go against the stream — the surroundings you are living in. Thus, you will be a source of Yiddish nachas to Hashem, your parents, and K’lal Yisrael.

(הרב דוב ארי' ז"ל בערזאן)