“Lessons from Traveling in the Wilderness”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Bamidbar, the people of Israel are counted, the structure of the tribal encampments is described, a census is taken of the Levites and their duties are enumerated.

Given the subject matter, parashat Bamidbar is understandably filled with an abundance of counting and numbers, tribal guidelines and traveling instructions, not the sort of stuff that generally inspires. But then again, never sell the Torah short. In these seemingly mundane numbers and structures may be found valued and important lessons.

When announcing the camping arrangements for the people of Israel, G-d tells Moses and Aaron to tell the people of Israel (Numbers 2:2): “Ish ahl dig’lo v’oh’toat l’vayt ah’vo’tahm ya’cha’noo b’nay Yisrael, mee’neged sa’viv l’ohel mo’ayd ya’cha’noo.” The children of Israel shall encamp, each man by his banner according to the insignias of their father’s households, at a distance, surrounding the Tent of Meeting shall they encamp. The Torah then details the names and locations of the tribes that encamped on the east, south, west and north.

The tribes of Judah, Issacher and Zebulun were to camp on the east. The tribes of Reuben, Simeon and Gad were to camp on the south. The tribes of Ephraim, Menashe and Benjamin were to camp on the west, and the tribes of Dan, Asher and Naphtali were to camp on the north.

The Torah (Numbers 9:17 and 10:5) tells us that when the cloud that constantly hovered over the Tabernacle would suddenly rise, it was an indication that the people must travel. Aaron’s sons then sounded the trumpets and, as the people prepared to travel, the Levites began to dismantle the Tabernacle. In Numbers 2:17 the Torah tells us, “Ka’ah’sher ya’cha’noo kayn yee’sa’ooh, eesh ahl ya’doh l’dig’lay’hem,” as they encamp, so shall they journey, everyone at his place, according to their banners. And so, according to most rabbinic opinions, the tribe of Judah and its accompanying tribes traveled first, Reuben and its accompanying tribes–second, Ephraim and its accompanying tribes–third, and Dan and its accompanying tribes traveled last.

The Tabernacle, now disassembled, was transported by the Levites. In fact, the Torah tells us specifically (Numbers 2:17): “V’na’sah ohel mo’ayd ma’cha’nay ha’L’vee’im, b’toch ha’ma’cha’noat,” that the Tabernacle, together with the camp of the Levites, shall journey in the middle of the camps, after the insignias of Reuben and before the insignias of Ephraim.

Perhaps these abundant details of the ancient Israelites’ journey in the wilderness would be of interest to a tour guide. But, in contemporary times, what is there for us to learn? Obviously, the fact that the Torah presents such copious details regarding the tribal encampments points to the importance of the definitive social structure that is necessary for Jewish continuity (see parashat Bamidbar 2001). But there is quite a bit more to learn from the experiences and travels of the Israelites in the wilderness.

The Torah, in Numbers 2:17, teaches us that “as they [the Israelites] encamp, so they shall journey.” It’s one thing to practice one’s religiosity meticulously at home, in a strong Jewish environment, with supportive friends and neighbors who are also observant. But what is a Jew to do in the “wilderness,” on a business trip or on vacation? The Torah here, in effect, tells us that one should not lower his/her standards when away from home, and that observance of the Jewish dietary laws, communal prayer and listening to Torah reading should be fulfilled while on the road as well. In fact, the same verse, Leviticus 2:17, that tells how the Israelites should journey, also tells us that the Tabernacle and the camp of the Levites journeyed in the middle of the camp. The centrality of the Tabernacle informs us emphatically that particularly when away from home, we Jews need to be especially fastidious about keeping the Torah at the center of our lives, to keep us anchored, and of course, to make sure that we study Torah, even while on vacation.

As the saying goes, “G-d is in the details,” and these details are vitally important, not only for Jewish observance, but for Jewish continuity as well. The Torah not only provides the Jewish people with directions on how to live, it is in essence the lifeblood, the spiritual lifeblood of our survival, and the survival of our entire nation.

May you be blessed.