The Mysterious Brackets
When the Ark went forth, Moses said, “Arise,
O God, and scatter your enemies! Let your foes flee before
You!” When it came to rest, he said, “Return,
O God, the myriads of Israel's thousands” –
this week’s Torah portion (Numbers 10:35-36).
Whoever reads this chapter daily with proper
intention will not be hurt, even when he may travel to a
place of thieves, be at sea or in another dangerous location
- Emek HaMelech Gate I section 59
Life can often be quite difficult. Who amongst us has not
had to contend, at times, with the tentacles of darkness?
Whether it be tangible enemies, driven by violence, hate,
envy and greed, or psychological demons and fears; whether
it be emotional losses and betrayals, or pain and suffering
due to health and other frailties, or the basic dangers
that lurk about, much about life can present quite a daunting
Indeed, the first and still the largest best-seller of
the modern-day so-called self-help book genre, The Road
Less Traveled, begins with the line: Life is difficult.
And many people, who never got beyond the first line, cite
these words as the reason that made this book so memorable
for them. I guess life’s difficulties resonate with
everyone and just confirming the fact goes a long way.
Long before The Road Less Traveled people knew life was
difficult. Many, many books over the ages have documented
the fact, beginning with the Bible (which actually remains
the largest best-seller of all time, to the point
that they don’t even count it in the charts; but that’s
a story for another time).
It must be stated that there is also much beauty in life.
Just witness the delight and joy of newlyweds or new parents.
We all hopefully have many radiant experiences – of
love and splendor, both in our personal and social lives,
moments of peace and kindness, encounters with nobility
or the calm of a simple walk in nature. Yet, despite the
beauty, without invalidating it, the pains of life remain
a haunting force, that all too often overwhelms us.
What can we do about that? Denial and sticking one’s
head in sand hoping for the best is not the option of the
wise. Faith and support of others are surely excellent tools
to combat adversity. But are there measures we can take
to minimize (or even prevent) suffering, are there actions
we can do to counter the forces of darkness?
In an idiosyncratic section consisting of two verses, this
week’s Torah portion provides us with a relevant answer
and a practical approach to facing hardships.
As the Jews began their long and arduous journey through
the harsh Sinai wilderness, a “great, terrifying desert,
where there were snakes, vipers, scorpions and thirst, with
no water” (Deuteronomy 8:15), they were led by the
Holy Ark which contained the Torah within (the Tablets,
both the second complete ones and the first broken ones).
In dramatic fashion, the Torah describes the scene of this
When the Ark went forth, Moses said, “Arise, O God,
and scatter your enemies! Let your foes flee before You!”
When it came to rest, he said, “Return, O God, the
myriads of Israel's thousands” (Numbers 10:35-36).
The power of these two verses is captured by the 17th
century Kabbalist, Rabbi Naftali Hertz Bachrach of Frankfurt.
In his classic work, Emek HaMelech, he writes:
Whoever reads this chapter daily with proper intention
will not be hurt, even when he may travel to a place of
thieves, at sea or in another dangerous location.
These two verses capture the challenging story of our lives
– and we actually say these verses till this day every
time the Torah is taken out from the synagogue Ark: Despite
life’s hardships, we do not come unarmed. The Holy
Ark leads the way, and in its wake “enemies”
are scattered and “foes” flee. The Torah –
called “Torah of life” and the “Torah
of light” – illuminates the dark and lonely
paths of existence and empowers us with direction, fortitude
and commitment to make it through the most challenging experiences
Torah is not just a book or a Bible. It is a blueprint.
A spiritual guide. Just as every machine comes with an operator’s
manual, Torah is life’s operator’s manual, offering
us the inner workings of existence and of ourselves. Every
character, every story, every episode relates another aspect
of your spiritual DNA, teaching you what “makes you
tick” and the power of your soul; a manual that instructs
us as to which paths will make our “machine”
work best and which ones will not.
This interpretation of Torah may seem new to some. Our
schools, after all, do not teach us that Torah is a spiritual
blueprint (only written in cryptic form and “speaking
in the language of man’). But frankly, without seeing
Torah as telling our spiritual story, what relevance
can an ancient text, relating events that happened in a
different time and place, have to our lives today?
Yes, life presents many difficulties, often harsh ones.
But the most dangerous of them all is ignorance, and the
confusion and demoralization it creates. Look at any suffering
and you will see that often the worst part of it is the
sense of loneliness and despair it creates, the plaguing
doubts whether a remedy can be found, the agonizing over
an unknown future, the hopelessness of it all. Torah illuminates
the inner path, and as such may not always take away the
pain, but allows us to see beyond it, helping us transcend
it, infusing with hope and fortitude to fight on. And despite
the questions, it empowers us to forge ahead and thrive,
not just survive. This is the power and blessing of a spiritual
blueprint – the power of faith, but faith that comes
together with a guide that directs our actions.
The ultimate way to protect against any adversary is to
come armed with spiritual strength and resilience. By holding
onto and following the lead of the Ark – to the point
that we actually declare this commitment by stating the
words “when the Ark went forth…” –
we march not alone, but with the enormous might of the timeless
Torah, which has carried us for over three millennia, through
the worst and best of times.
“When you are bound above,” our masters say, “you will
not fall below.”
* * *
If you wish you can stop reading here (not that you need
my permission). Especially if your attention span has been
But if you read on you will find that the story is far
more interesting and far-reaching.
The story behind the story of fortitude in the face of
adversity, the power behind the power of the Torah, can
be appreciated by a rare anomaly, occurring only once in
the entire Torah: The two verses in this week’s chapter
are preceded and followed by two inverted Hebrew letters
Nun, like this [ ], enclosing this section, as it
were, between two brackets, separating them from the verses
before and after.
Explains the Talmud: For this section G-d placed symbols
above and below... because it ranks as a significant book
unto itself (Talmud, Shabbat 115b).
[In effect, this renders the Torah into seven books. 1)
Genesis, 2) Exodus, 3) Leviticus. 4) The beginning of the
book of Numbers up to these two verses, 5) These two verses,
6) The rest of the book of Numbers, and 7) Deuteronomy].
But what is the deeper meaning and significance of these
brackets? Why would two verses be singled out to create
an entire new book of Torah?
The mystics offer a fascinating explanation in the meaning
of these brackets – as elucidated in a discourse which
was delivered by the Rebbe Rashab 100 years ago this week
The two brackets combined create an image of a square.
This square symbolizes the “square garment”
which explains the mystery of existence.
In the words of the above-cited Kabbalistic work, Emek
This garment carries the secret of the square and closed
mem , because the garment is square, which then
divides into two and becomes two nuns, and these are the
two nuns written in the chapter “when the ark went
forth…,” which is shaped like an open inverted
nun like this [ ]…
This constitutes a great secret: Whoever reads this
chapter daily with kavanah (proper intention) will not be
hurt, even when he may travel to a place of thieves, be
at sea or in another dangerous location. As long as he keeps
in mind the two-abovementioned nuns that hint to the two
halves of the garment. This is the secret of Moses’
prayer, “when the Ark went forth, Moses said,
“Arise, O God, and scatter your enemies. Let your
foes flee before You,” and also the Rashbi said that
“taking out the Torah scroll in public opens up the
gates of compassion, which is why we say this prayer when
the ark is opened… (Emek HaMelech Gate I section
59. See also Mikdash Melech, Zohar I 15a).
Picture a garment – a beautiful tapestry – both concealing
and revealing. Concealing and revealing something very intimate
and profound beneath. This “garment” is made up of two sections,
one translucent, the other opaque. Existence hangs in the
Kabbalists use the example of this square garment to explain
the bridge between our perception of reality and the deeper
higher reality that lies behind the curtain.
At times we all sense something “behind the scenes”
– a force above and beyond our own existence. But
true reality is like a brilliant light, an unbridled flow
of energy. Unshielded we would be blinded by the light,
overwhelmed by the energy force, not merely unable to see,
but unable to be. Our independent existence could
not survive, our independent sense of self would cease to
exist were we submerged in the boundless energy of higher
Consciousness, therefore, is actually a state of concealment.
Our sense of existence – the feeling that “I
am” – is possible only due to shrouded energy.
Paradoxically, true awareness is not what we fathom, but
that which we don’t fathom; to be awake means to be
aware that we are asleep. True awareness is when we are
aware of something beyond our awareness.
Yet, we are not trapped in an airtight prison. A delicate
drape conceals the higher reality. As you look at the garment
you sense that it is beckoning you while protecting you,
drawing you closer while keeping you away. But when you
look closely, you can discern the fine fibers, threads and
filaments engraved in the cloth, which in turn allow you
to sense the powerful rumblings behind the screen.
Our life’s work on this side of the “curtain” is to channel
and draw into our beings and our environments the light
and energy from behind the curtain, in effect reconnecting
both sides of the curtain.
This “dressing room” is the basis of an entire mystical
treatise, which explains the magnitude of the “significant
book onto itself” of the two verses in our chapter.
With its own elegant brand of poetry, the mystics paint
a graceful portrait – call it mystical poetry –
that allows us to envision our limited perception juxtaposed
against the backdrop of a higher reality, with an opaque
curtain in between.
With this imagery we return to the two-bracketed verses:
The two verses, “when the ark went forth…” framed by the
two nuns, are brackets, which together create a square
 (the closed mem in the Hebrew alphabet). This
square forms a “significant book onto itself,”
and this “book” tells the story of our lives,
as captured in the portrait of the garment that both conceals
and reveals the light beyond.
As the Midrash explains it: From whence was light created?
G-d wrapped Himself in a white tallit (a shawl) and
he shone forth from one end of the world to the next, as
it says (Psalms 104:2) You are clothed with light like a
robe (Midrash, Shemos Rabba 50:1).
Why the wonder about the creation of light more than all
other creations? Because light reflects and is drawn to
the Divine, thus begging the question, how can light be
drawn down into creation when its personality is to ascend
upward, like a flame that expires without a grounding wick?
The answer is that the Divine “dresses up” in
the garment of light, thus allowing the light to be drawn
down and contained in our finite existence.
The garment of light is the Torah, which manifests and
“clothes” the Divine in ways that can be contained
by our limited beings (see Tanya ch. 52). When you read
the verse carefully, “You are clothed with light like
a robe,” two dimensions are described: 1) The Divine
is clothed with light, and this is 2) like a robe.
These refer to two dimensions in Torah, the revealed and
the esoteric, the outer and the inner, which correspond
to the two sections of the “garment,” the two
letters nun. Like any effective intermediary, the
garment must have an element of the source it is emanating
and transmitting – the light, and an element that
allows the light to be contained by the recipient –
The “outer” revealed dimension of Torah teaches us the
mechanics and the rules, the do’s and don’ts, of life. The
“inner” hidden dimension lifts us to the light. The outer
is finite; the inner infinite. Both are necessary. One provides
revelation and transcendence, the other concealment and
grounding. Without the inner we can succumb to the trappings
of material life and its seductive powers. The mechanics
alone are not always immune to self-interest. Without the
outer our existence would be annihilated in face of the
blinding light. The outer manifests and contains Torah-light
in the defined structure and boundaries of existence. The
challenge is not to escape life and its difficulties, not
to deny the harsh wilderness, but to enter it, to tame,
sublimate and refine the arid desert and its toxicity.
This is the deeper significance of the two verses –
the book of its own – framed by the two nuns:
These two verses encompass the central theme of the entire
Torah, and are thus framed like a “square garment,”
which can also be seen as a mini Torah scroll, within which
is etched the two letters nun, corresponding to the
two dimensions in Torah, the inner and outer, “light”
and “robe,” each containing 50 (nun)
gates of understanding:
“When the Ark will travel” refers to the light’s journey
to Earth. The ark in Hebrew is “ohron,” which consists
of the letters ohr (light) and nun. Its journey
through the wilderness reflects the journey of each of our
lives through this dark universe, each of us with our set
of particular challenges. [These two verses also consist
of 85 letters, the gematria of “ha’tevah,”
the Hebrew for nature, signifying that Torah refines the
nature of existence].
But we come well prepared to face all adversaries. With
the light of the ark leading the way, we have the power
to “scatter” all enemies” and cause all
foes to flee: Armed with both “brackets” (the
two letters nun) we are able to be both immersed
in this world and remain above it, immunizing us and blunting
the stark realities of life on Earth.
And we recite these verses each time we open the ark, telling
us that at all times, even today, the journey of the Ark
leads our way and protects us from harm.
To survive and grow in our harsh world we need two things:
revelation and concealment. And this is what this “significant
book” offers us: Framed by two nuns the book
is a “square garment” that reveals as it conceals the higher
One of many practical applications of this message is in
the way it affects our attitudes and relationships: How
should we tackle a difficult situation or person? Should
we ignore it or fight it? When faced with something that
reflects the dark side of life, a painful experience or
a person resistant to love, should we run the other way
or fight and overwhelm the adversary? When our child has
done a serious wrong, do you excuse or scold the child?
The bracketed “book” teaches us a third path: You have
the power to look head-on at the challenge, without fear
or retreat, and then find a way to present a loving message
in ways that the child can contain.
The same with the other situations: We were sent –
purposefully sent – on a journey to a wilderness,
a world with many difficulties, precisely for the purpose
of sublimating and refining this hostile environment, for
which we were given all the necessary tools. A challenge
need not cause us to go from one extreme to the next, escapism
Many protective measures and defensive strategies have
been posited over the ages to shield us from harm. The Torah’s
approach is that the best defense is offense – wise
offense. Preventive rather than protective measures, is
the way that this week’s chapter teaches us the secret
of the “garment” approach: Conceal while you
reveal. Craft solutions in shapes and forms that can be
contained. And above all, follow and connect to a force
beyond our own resources, and draw that into your life,
clothe and integrate the light into your structures.
When you stay the course, led by the Ark, surrounded by
its brackets, nothing can harm you.
*) The discourse that begins Vayehi Binsoyah Ha'Aron 5669.
Based on the discourse with the same name in Ohr HaTorah
BeHaalotcha p. 371. See also Vayehi Binsoyah Ha'Aron 5699.,