Letter and Spirit

For the week ending 1 June 2019 / 27 Iyyar 5779

Parshat Bamidbar

by Rabbi Yosef Hershman
Library Library Kaddish

Camp and Community

The Torah takes great pains to describe the camping formation of the twelve tribes in the desert. Each tribe was commanded to camp next to its flag and journey in the following pattern: In the front, to the east, under the lead camp of Yehuda, were the tribes of Yissachar and Zevulun. To the right, in the south, under the lead camp of Reuven, were the tribes of Shimon and Gad. To the left, in the north, under the lead camp of Dan, were the tribes of Asher and Naftali. Finally, opposing Yehuda in the west, under the lead camp of Efrayim, were the tribes of Efrayim and Menashe.

That this formation was specifically commanded hints at significance beyond orderliness or efficiency. The tribes of Israel represented the different character traits that would join to form the nation. The individuality of each tribe was emphasized by Yaakov in his final blessing, and was intended to be nurtured by their separate encampment in the desert and settlement in the Land.

Yehuda, the striving leader who stands at the head and leads the entire nation, was visualized by Yaakov with a scepter and a stylus — these represent the ruler and lawmaker. Yissachar was the tribe of agriculture, with sufficient time to engage in learning. Zevulun, the tribe of commerce, was also the tribe of literature (Song of Devorah, Shoftim 5:14). This camp of Yehuda, then, united all the basic elements on which the material and spiritual welfare of the nation depends: the scepter and the law, agriculture and scholarship, commerce and literature.

Whereas the material and spiritual were united in each of the tribes in the leading camp of Yehuda, they are divided into the two subordinate flanking camps. Reuven, Shimon and Gad comprise Yehuda’s right hand, representing the spiritual, and Dan, Asher and Naftali comprise Yehuda’s left hand, representing the physical. ומשמאלם עושר וכבוד.

Reuven is endowed with all the intellectual gifts and with a keen sense of justice, but the relatively soft nature of his character made him unfit for national leadership. Joining him are Shimon, the avenger of honor, and Gad, the avenger of unprovoked attacks. Together, they represent the courage to fend off insults and attacks.

Dan is the tribe of adroit cunning, and he is joined by Asher, representing refinement of taste, and Naftali, representing eloquence. Together they form the core of spiritual creativity.

The three tribes in the rear — Efrayim, Menashe and Binyamin — are not characterized as clearly as the other tribes. In Tehiilim we see the three grouped together in the following verse: … Before Efrayim and Binyamin and Menashe, rouse Your omnipotence and come to our aid! This camp, representing strength and courage, and the wellbeing of the entire camp, is positioned facing the camp of Yehuda in the lead.

The compete nation — with leadership and law at its head, flanked by courage and creativity at its sides, and reinforced with strength at its rear — prepares for its journey through the history.

  • Sources: Commentary, Bamidbar 2:34

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