“Bringing Order to the Camp of Israel”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Bamidbar, the people of Israel are instructed to build a camp in the wilderness. G-d speaks to Moses and Aaron and says (Numbers 2:2): “Eesh ahl dig’loh, v’oh’toht l’vayt ah’vo’tahm, yah’cha’noo B’nay Yisrael,” The children of Israel shall encamp, each man by his own banner, according to the insignias of their father’s household, at a distance surrounding the Tent of Meeting shall they encamp.

The encampment of Israel was actually structured as three separate concentric camps. The central-most camp, the camp of G-d, contained the Tabernacle, the ark and the holy furnishings. Around the Tabernacle, on the north, south, east and west sides, were the families of Levi, Moses, Aaron and the priests, whose role was to guard the Tabernacle area. The twelve tribes of Israel, divided into four groups of three tribes, formed the third camp around the two inner camps.

All the camps were meticulously organized. On the eastern side was the camp known as the standard of Judah, consisting of the tribes of Judah, Issachar and Zebulun. On the south side was the camp known as the standard of Reuben, consisting of Reuben, Simeon and Gad. On the west side was the camp known as the standard of Ephraim, consisting of Ephraim, Menashe and Benjamin. Finally, on the north side was the camp known as the standard of the camp of Dan, consisting of the tribes of Dan, Asher and Naphtali.

The Torah, in Numbers 2, not only marks the locations of the various tribes, but even records the population of males over twenty years old in each tribe, and describes the order in which the tribes of Israel traveled when they broke camp.

The Midrash is troubled by the constant repetition of the term, “Eesh ahl diglo,” indicating that each man had his own banner or flag. The commentators therefore explain that this is an allusion to the fact that each tribe had its own colored flag and its own “logo,” reflecting the personality of the tribe. Artistic renditions of these insignia often adorn our synagogues today.

The Midrash (Midrash Rabba, Bamidbar 2:3), states that the idea of the flags originated at Sinai. According to tradition, when the Al-mighty came down to Sinai to give the Torah, He was surrounded by 22,000 angels, equal to the number of adult Levites, underscoring the importance of the tribe of Levi. The angels stood as flags and standard bearers about the Al-mighty’s holy throne. Textual support for this is found in the verse in Song of Songs 5:10: “Dagul may’r’vavah,” describing G-d as being distinguished among the myriads, a play on the Hebrew words for flag and tens of thousands.

When the Israelites saw the angels arrayed like flags, they begged the Al-mighty that their own camps be arranged in a like manner. This too is alluded to in Song of Songs 2:4, “He brought me into the house of wine, and his banner over me was love.” The Jewish people begged to merit Divine love, like the love G-d showed His angels, who were arrayed like flags. The Al-mighty responded, promising them that, “Just as the angels are arrayed as flags, so too, shall you be arrayed as flags.”

The task of arranging the nation of Israel according to flags was no easy one. A second Midrash (Midrash Rabba, Bamidbar 2:8) relates that when the Al-mighty instructed Moses to arrange the people according to their flags, standards and tribes, Moses expressed dismay, saying, “Now, the tribes will be angry with one and other, and will fight. If I tell Judah to go first in the east, they might say, ‘I wish to go on the south.’ Each tribe will say, ‘I want to be where Judah is.'”

The Al-mighty responded to Moses, reassuring him, “You need not tell each tribe where to camp, they already know the order from their forefather, Jacob.” Apparently, before he passed from the world, Jacob inscribed in his will that his sons should make him an honorable funeral, and that no one, other than his twelve sons, may touch his coffin, not even his grandchildren. He further specified the order of encampment, setting specific tribes on the east, south, west and north. He would not allow Joseph to carry his coffin, since he was a king, and must be accorded respect. The tribe of Levi, was also not permitted to serve as a pallbearer, since he was to carry the Ark of G-d. That is why the verse states (Numbers 2:2): “Eesh ahl dig’lo, v’oh’tot l’vayt avotam, yah’cha’noo B’nay Yisrael,” Every man shall camp according to his banner, and according to their father’s household–-an allusion to Jacob’s specific instructions.

We see from these Midrashim that there are two basic and distinct elements necessary for the proper establishment of a household and a family. Jewish children must be raised with fear of Heaven, so that they will want to establish their own homes longing to imitate G-d’s camp, surrounded by angels holding flags. Like the ancient Israelites, every person in the home must have his/her own distinct role and responsibility, his/her own territory and obligations. After all, without Divine inspiration and intervention, no family unit can truly be secure.

But there also needs to be a practical, down-to-earth direction from the elders, the fathers and the mothers, grandfathers and the grandmothers. It was the legacy that father Jacob left for his children, directing them where to stand and what roles to play, that made certain that each child had a particular role and saw him or herself playing an important function, not in competition with their brothers and sisters, but rather complementing their brothers and sisters.

This is no easy assignment for families to achieve.

On Shabbat, February 28, 2009, 4th Adar 5769, my beloved mother-in-law, Shirley Spitz Stein passed away, at age 83, after a long illness. On the surface, she was a typical American Jewish mother. She grew up in Williamsburg, attended Brooklyn College, and raised a family of three wonderful children. She lost her beloved husband, Rabbi Naftali Spitz, suddenly, to pancreatic cancer when he was only 54 years old. Fortunately, she was able to pick up the pieces of her life, and two years later married a wonderful man, Rabbi Moshe Stein, and had a blessed second marriage for 28 years.

The challenge that she faced, however, was not only bereavement, but how to meld two disparate families. Rabbi Stein had lost his first wife, when she was only 39 years old, and for 13 years single-handedly raised his three children, the youngest of whom was 9 years old, before he remarried. Both families had suffered devastating losses. The younger children of both families especially, needed abundant personal attention. Whatever was necessary, often at great personal sacrifice, was done by Mrs. Stein to strengthen the family bond and to attend to each family member’s individual needs. She was a master harmonizer, but it wasn’t easy.

At her funeral, Mrs. Stein was not only eulogized by her biological children, but also by her two stepsons. At her Shloshim, not only her biological grandchildren spoke, but also her step-grandchildren. For 28 years, she successfully united the family by introducing elements of heaven, spirituality, faith in G-d, confidence in the future, and some very practical motherly wisdom, creating a single unit, to the point where it was virtually impossible to discern which family members were biological and which were not.

In my capacity as rabbi, I too often see families embroiled in bitter disputes. Brothers refuse to speak to each other, family members refuse to attend a simcha if other family members will be present. Unfortunately, these issues are not rarities. Family members fight viciously for recognition, and to preserve their own turfs. And when it comes to finances, such as dividing the will–forget it!

The Midrash states that in order to maintain peace among the tribes of Israel, Moses was able to rely on the angels and on the specific instructions that Jacob left his sons. While we may look at the legacy of our forefathers and learn from G-d’s own directives, we need to make certain that we employ every ounce of our own G-d-given wisdom (which often means significantly compromising our personal desires) in order to ensure domestic tranquility in our families and in our homes.

May you be blessed.

The official date of Yom Yerushalayim is 28 Iyar, Thursday night, May 21st and Friday, May 22nd. In order to avoid desecration of Shabbat, the Yom Yerushalayim parade and public ceremonies in Israel will be on Thursday. Outside of Israel, some communities will be celebrating Yom Yerushalayim on Wednesday night and Thursday, others will celebrate on Thursday night and Friday. Please check your local calenders.