“Jewish Continuity through Family Structure
(Updated and revised from Bamidbar 5761-2001)

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Bamidbar, G-d instructs Moses to count the Jewish people.

Rashi, explains that G-d’s profound love for the Jewish people impelled Him to continually count His beloved nation, like one counts a prized possession or money.

The parasha continues with the description of the encampment of the Jewish people in the wilderness. In addition to counting the soldiers from twenty years old and upward, the parasha describes how the camp was arrayed and precisely where the various tribes of Israel encamped. The מִשְׁכָּןMishkan, the Tabernacle, was at the center of the camp, surrounded on all four sides by the three families of Levi as well as Moses, Aaron and Aaron’s sons. Around the perimeter of Levi’s camp the twelve tribes of Israel were arranged in four groups of three. Each group of three tribes formed a דֶּגֶלdegel, a “standard,” that was named after the group’s leading tribe, the standards of Judah, Reuben, Ephraim and Dan.

In Numbers 1:18, the Torah records, וַיִּתְיַלְדוּ עַל מִשְׁפְּחֹתָם לְבֵית אֲבֹתָם , the People of Israel confirmed their pedigrees and genealogies according to their families, and their fathers’ households. The careful census was followed by a strict encampment structure. Every tribe confirmed its members, and where it was to dwell—on the north, south, east or west side of the Tabernacle, as well as whether it was to be positioned to the right, left or center of its degel, its tribal standard.

The Midrash Rabbah in Numbers 2:4, declares that it was the precise structure and encampment of Israel that officially rendered the Jewish people holy and elevated.

In fact, the Midrash claims, that all the nations of the world gazed in astonishment and awe at the remarkable structure of the people, and asked, (Song of Songs 6:10), מִי זֹאת הַנִּשְׁקָפָה כְּמוֹ שָׁחַר ? Who is this who appears like the dawn? יָפָה כַלְּבָנָה , as beautiful as the moon, בָּרָה כַּחַמָּה , as bright as the sun, אֲיֻמָּה כַּנִּדְגָּלוֹת ? awesome as the most elevated things? Then the nations of the world beckoned to the People of Israel, calling out to them, (Song of Songs 7:1), שׁוּבִי שׁוּבִי הַשּׁוּלַמִּית , Return, return O Shulamit, (a name of endearment for Israel) שׁוּבִי שׁוּבִי וְנֶחֱזֶה בָּךְ , 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 people. “We’ll make you leaders, we’ll make you influential consultants, we’ll make you senators, we’ll nominate you for Vice President!”

The Jewish people however refused. They instead responded, (Song of Songs 7:1), מַה תֶּחֱזוּ בַּשּׁוּלַמִּית ,Why are you gazing at the Shulamit?” כִּמְחֹלַת הַמַּחֲנָיִם ? 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—מָחוֹל , of machanaim-מַּחֲנָיִם , the standards of the camps of Judah or of Reuben. Can you improve on that?

An alternate interpretation: Can you nations, in any way, add to our stature? כִּמְחֹלַת הַמַּחֲנָיִם , Are you able to improve upon the great stature that G-d gave us in the wilderness? After all, we were sinful and He forgave us—מָחַל לָנוּ , and declared, Deuteronomy 23:15, וְהָיָה מַחֲנֶיךָ קָדוֹשׁ , despite your worship of the Golden Calf, your camp can be holy!

That is why, says the Midrash, later in Jewish history, when Balaam saw the Jewish people encamped together, he could not bear it. Unable to touch or harm Israel, Numbers 24:2 reports, וַיִּשָּׂא בִלְעָם אֶת עֵינָיו, וַיַּרְא אֶת יִשְׂרָאֵל שֹׁכֵן לִשְׁבָטָיו , and, Balaam lifted up his eyes and saw the Jewish people resting by its tribes. When Balaam saw the standards (flags) and the orderliness of the tribes, he said, “Who can harm these creatures, who recognize their fathers and their families?”

Clearly, it is the familial structure of the Jewish people that is the source of their shelter and their strength. It is this sacred family structure that is vital for Jewish continuity.

In stark contrast to the firm familial structure of Israel, contemporary sociologists report that fewer than one quarter of the people in the United States live in traditional nuclear families–father, mother, son, daughter. It’s the family that is the glue, the cement of society. And, as the nuclear family erodes, including many Jewish families, the devastating breakdown of society is not far behind.

We pray that G-d will soon restore all people to their proper tents, and especially contemporary Jews to their tribes and their familial orderliness, so that the Balaams of the world will, once again, be forced to acknowledge and declare (Numbers 24:5), מַה טֹּבוּ אֹהָלֶיךָ יַעֲקֹב , How goodly are your tents O Jacob, your dwelling places O Israel.

The continuity of the Jewish people is predicated on the strength of their families. May G-d give us the wisdom to protect our families, so that we, and all of humankind, may be strengthened and soon redeemed.

May you be blessed.

This year, Yom Yerushalayim, Jerusalem Reunification Day, is observed this Thursday night, May 21st and Friday May 22nd. This year marks the 53rd anniversary of the reunification of the city.