The Book of Bamidbar — "In the Desert" — begins with G-d commanding Moshe to take a census of all men over age twenty — old enough for service. The count reveals just over 600,000. The levi'im are counted separately later because their service will be unique. They will be responsible for transporting the Mishkan and its furnishings and assembling them when the nation encamps. The 12 Tribes of Israel, each with its banner, are arranged around the Mishkan in four sections: east, south, west and north. Since Levi is singled out, the tribe of Yosef is split into two tribes, Efraim and Menashe, so there will be four groups of three. When the nation travels, they march in a formation similar to the way they camp. A formal transfer is made between the first-born and the levi'im, whereby the levi'im take over the role the first-born would have had serving in the Mishkan if not for the sin of the golden calf. The transfer is made using all the 22,000 surveyed levi'im from one month old and up. Only levi'im between 30 and 50 will work in the Mishkan. The remaining first-born sons are redeemed with silver, similar to the way we redeem our first-born today. The sons of Levi are divided into three main families, Gershon, Kehat and Merari (besides the kohanim — the special division from Kehat's family). The family of Kehat carried the menorah, the table, the altar and the holy ark. Because of their utmost sanctity, the ark and the altar are covered only by Aharon and his sons, before the levi'im prepare them for travel.
Only By Being One Can We Reveal The One Being
"The children of Israel shall camp, every man at his camp and every man at his banner..." (1:52)
The Jewish People can only reach their ultimate purpose through unity. Only through being One can G-d’s Presence be revealed in the world, as it says in the liturgy of the Shabbat Afternoon prayer: “You are One and Your Name is One, and who is like Your People, Yisrael, One Nation in the Land?”
When Yisrael is one, then G-d’s Name is One – meaning that the world perceives that there is only One Power in existence.
Why then did G-d form the Jewish People into twelve shevatim (tribes)? Why didn’t He create the Jewish People as a single entity? The very word “tribe” in English implies sectarianism; turf wars, intolerance – the very opposite of unity.
It’s a common misconception that Judaism requires slavish uniformity. Nothing could be further from the truth. If G-d wanted us to be all the same, then why did he create us so different?
Klal Yisrael, the union of the Jewish People as an entity, can only be achieved by each one of us fulfilling our individual potential as human beings and Jews.
When the media show helicopter shots of a sea of several hundred thousand black hats, there is an impression that being religious means being an automaton, being just another faceless face in the crowd.
In fact, the only way we can be One is to be like the tribes in the desert: separate, individual but united by the Holy Ark – the Torah - that sat in the midst of the camp.
In the Future World, our Sages teach us, the righteous will dance in a circle and G-d will sit in the middle. Each one will be 180 degrees from each other – diametrically opposed - but they will all be equidistant from G-d.
- Sources: Based on Rabbi Shimshon Rafael Hirsch, zatzal, and Rabbi Zev Leff, shlita