“Continuity Through Family Structure”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Bamidmar, G-d instructs Moshe to count the Jewish people. Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki 1040-1105), the primary commentary on the bible, explains that G-d loves the Jewish people so much that he continuously counts them, like one counts a prized possession or money.

The parasha continues with the description of the encampment of the Jewish people in the wilderness and, in addition to counting the soldiers from twenty years old and upward, the parasha informs us exactly where the various tribes of Israel encamped. The Mishkan, the Tabernacle, was at the center of the camp. Surrounding the Mishkan were the three families of Levi as well as Moshe, Aharon and Aharon’s sons. Around the perimeter of Levi’s camp were the tribes of Israel arranged in four groups of three. Each tribe formed a part of a degel, a “standard,” named after the leading tribes, the standard of Judah, Reuven, Ephraim, and Dan.

The Torah informs us in Numbers 1, verse 18, “Va’yit’yaldu al mish’p’cho’tam l’veit a’votam,” the People of Israel confirmed their pedigrees and genealogies according to their families and their fathers’ household. Indeed, the careful census was followed by a rigorous encampment structure. Every tribe was told who were its members, and where it was to dwell–north, south, east, west, as well as whether it was to be to the right, left, or center of the tribal standard, the degel.

The Midrash Raba in Bamidbar tells us that the precise structure and encampment of Israel rendered the Jewish people holy and elevated. In fact, the Midrash claims, all the nations of the world looked in astonishment and awe at the structure and said, as recorded in Song of Songs 6:10, “Mi zot ha’nish’kafa k’mo sha’char?” Who is this who appears like the dawn? “Yaffa kal’vanah,” as beautiful as the moon, “Bara ka’chama,” as bright as the sun, “A’yumah ka’nig’da’lot?” awesome as the most elevated things? Then the nations of the world would say, (Song of Songs 7:1) “Shuvi shuvi ha’shu’lamit,” Return, return O Shulamit, (a name of endearment for Israel) “Shuvi, shuvi v’neche’zeh bach,” Return, return, let us look you over!

The Rabbis say that the statements made by the nations were calls of seduction, “Cling to us, join us, intermarry with us,” they said to the Jewish People. “We’ll make you leaders, we’ll make you key consultants, we’ll make you senators, we’ll nominate you for Vice President!” The Jewish people however refused, responding (Song of Songs 7:1), “Mah teh’chezu ba’shulamit”, “Why are you gazing at the Shulamit? “Kim’cholat ha’ma’cha’nayim?” The rabbi’s first interpretation of this verse is: Can you nations in any way add to the stature of the Jewish people? Can you top what G-d has done for us in the wilderness? Like the dance of machanayim, the standards of the camps of Judah or Reuven. Can you top that?

An alternate interpretation: What can you nations in any way add to our stature? “Kim’cholat ha’ma’cha’nayim,” Are you able to add greater stature to us than G-d gave us in the wilderness? After all, we were sinful and He forgave us (machal la’nu) and said to us (Deuteronomy 23:15), “V’ha’yah mah’cha’neh’cha ka’dosh,” despite your worship of the Golden Calf, your camp can be holy!

And that is why later in Jewish history, when Bilaam saw the Jewish people encamped together, he could not bear it. Bilaam could not touch or harm Israel. As it says (Numbers 24:2), “Va’yisa Bilaam et ay’nav, va’yar et Yisrael sho’chen lish’va’tav.” And Bilaam lifted up his eyes and saw the Jewish people resting by its tribes. When Bilaam saw the standards and the orderliness of the tribes, he said, “Who can harm these creatures, who recognize their fathers and their families?” It is the familial structure of the Jewish people that is the source of their shelter and their strength.

In stark contrast to the firm familial structure of Israel, this past week, the New York Times reported that fewer than one quarter of the people in the United States live in normal nuclear families–father, mother, son, daughter. Another report told of a New York City Jewish Day School that forbade mention of Mother’s Day in the classrooms in order to be sensitive to children who grow up in alternative families, without mothers and fathers. It’s nice to be sensitive, but where was the sensitivity all these years towards orphans, also children bereft of mothers and fathers? It’s the Jewish family that is the glue, the cement of Jewish life. And as the nuclear family erodes, the devastating breakdown of Jewish life is not far behind.

We pray that G-d will soon restore us to our tents, to our tribes, to our familial orderliness, so that the Bilaams of the world will be forced to acknowledge and say (Numbers 24:5), “Ma toh’vu o’ha’leh’cha Yaakov,” How goodly are your tents O Jacob, your dwelling places O Israel. The Jewish people’s continuity is predicated on the strength of our families. May G-d give us the wisdom to protect our families, so that we and our world may be strengthened and redeemed.

May you be blessed.