“Lessons from Traveling in the Wilderness”
(updated and revised from Bamidbar 5765-2005)

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 set, a census is taken of the Levites, and their duties are delineated.

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 details, numbers and structures may lie valued and important lessons.

When announcing the camping arrangements for the people of Israel, G-d tells Moses and Aaron to instruct the people of Israel (Numbers 2:2): אִישׁ עַל דִּגְלוֹ בְאֹתֹת לְבֵית אֲבֹתָם יַחֲנוּ בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, מִנֶּגֶד סָבִיב לְאֹהֶל מוֹעֵד יַחֲנוּ, 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 tribe of Judah, together with Issachar and Zebulun, were to camp on the east. The tribe of Reuben, together with Simeon and Gad, were to camp on the south. The tribe of Ephraim, together with Menashe and Benjamin, were to camp on the west, and the tribe of Dan, together with Asher and Naphtali, were to camp on the north.

The Torah (Numbers 9:17 and 10:5) informs 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 declares, כַּאֲשֶׁר יַחֲנוּ כֵּן יִסָּעוּ, אִישׁ עַל יָדוֹ לְדִגְלֵיהֶם, 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 specifically notes (Numbers 2:17): וְנָסַע אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד מַחֲנֵה הַלְוִיִּם בְּתוֹךְ הַמַּחֲנֹת, 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 professional tour guide. But what, pray tell, is there possibly of interest to us, and to contemporary Torah students? Obviously, the fact that the Torah provides such copious detail regarding the tribal encampments, points to the vital importance of the definitive social structure that is necessary for Jewish continuity (see parashat Bamidbar 5780-2020). But, certainly there is much more to learn from the experiences and travels of the Israelites in the wilderness.

The Torah, in Numbers 2:17, teaches, that “as they [the Israelites] encamp, so they shall journey.” It’s one thing to practice meticulous religiosity 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, declares that Jews should not lower their 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 drives home emphatically that, particularly when away from home, Jews need to be especially fastidious about keeping the Torah at the center of their lives, to stay anchored, and, of course, to make certain to study Torah, even while on vacation.

As the saying goes, “G-d is in the details.”–details that 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 the Jewish people.

May you be blessed.

On Tuesday night and Wednesday, the 28th of Iyar, June 4-5, 2024, we will celebrate Yom Yerushalayim, Jerusalem Day.