“The Invaluable Legacy of the Ancient Camp of Israel”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Bamidbar, the first parasha in Numbers, the fourth book of the Torah, we read of the initial census of the People of Israel in the wilderness and the structure and set-up of the tribal encampments.

G-d speaks to Moses (Numbers 1:2), in the wilderness of Sinai, in the Tent of Meeting, on the first day of the second month, in the second year after the exodus from the land of Egypt, and says: “S’oo eht rosh kol ah’daht B’nay Yisrael, l’mish’p’choh’tahm l’vayt ah’voh’tahm, b’mis’par shay’moht kol zah’char l’gool’g’loh’tahm,” Take a census of the entire assembly of the Children of Israel, according to their families, according to their fathers’ household, by number of the names, every male according to their headcount; from twenty years of age and up…

Moses, Aaron and the twelve tribal leaders conducted the census from the first day of the month of Iyar, until the twentieth of the month.

The census was extremely exacting and comprehensive. Every Israelite male over the age of twenty years was required to substantiate his family lineage and that of his forbears, going back to the sons of Jacob. Once they declared and confirmed their pedigrees, the Israelite males were assigned a tent in which to dwell in the particular tribal area that was designated for their tribe. The encampment of each tribe was marked with a standard or a flag, and groups of three tribes were assigned to dwell on one of the four sides of the Tabernacle.

The Levites were also counted from age one month old and up, as were the firstborn among the Israelites. Only then was the census concluded.

The Midrash elaborates at length regarding the counting of the people, providing many colorful details that are not found in the biblical text, and even connecting the census to the festival of Shavuot. The Midrash in Yalkut Shimoni, Numbers 684, states that when the Children of Israel received the Torah, the nations of the world grew envious and demanded to know why the Israelites merited to draw nearer to G-d than any other nation. G-d, however, silenced them by demanding that they bring their books of genealogy, to confirm their pedigrees, just as His children had done.

The Midrash Rabbah, Numbers 2:8, relates that when G-d instructed Moses to establish the camps of Israel, Moses was upset, fearing that no matter how carefully he allocated the tribal areas, there would be jealousy among them. “If I tell Judah to dwell in the East, he will say, ‘Impossible, I must be in the South.’”

The Al-mighty pressed Moses, “What is your problem? The People of Israel do not even need you in order to be properly situated. They already recognize where they are supposed to dwell, based on the long-standing testament of Jacob, their great-grandfather. Now, they are just renewing that testament. The way the twelve tribes encircled the coffin of Jacob, when he was brought from Egypt to be buried in Israel, that is the way that they will encircle the Tabernacle.”

Rabbi Eliyahu Kitov cites the statement of Rabbi Chammah, the son of Chanina, in the Midrash:

When Jacob, our forefather was about to depart from the world, he called his sons, and instructed them regarding the ways of G-d. They then accepted the dominion of G-d upon themselves. When he finished, he said to them, “When you carry me [to be buried in Canaan], it must be done with reverence and honor. No other person shall touch my deathbed, no Egyptian nor any of the other children, because they took of the daughters of Canaan.”

He said to them, “My sons, Judah, Isaachar, Zebulun, shall carry me from the East. Reuben, Simeon and Gad, shall carry me from the South. Ephraim, Menashe and Benjamin, shall carry me from the West. Dan, Asher and Naphtali, should carry me from the North. Joseph shall not carry, since he is a monarch, and you must accord him respect. Levi too shall not carry, because he carries the Holy Ark, and he who carries the Ark of the ever-living G-d, shall not carry the ark of the deceased. If you fulfill my wishes, and carry my coffin as I have instructed you, G-d will cause His Divine Presence to dwell amongst your tribal standards.”

When Jacob passed from the world, his sons carried him as he had instructed them, as it says (Genesis 50:12), “And his sons did for him, exactly as he had instructed them.”

The rabbis in Numbers Rabba 1 said that the Jewish people, as they dwelt in their camps, were holy and elevated. All the nations of the world stared at them in astonishment, saying (Song of Songs 6:10), “Who is she who appears as the dawn, beautiful as the moon, clear as the sun, fearsome as the great towers?!” The nations beckoned the Israelites saying (Song of Songs 7:1), “Return return o’ Shulammite, return return, that we may look at you.” Meaning, cling to us, come to us, and we will make you rulers, officers, authorities, leaders and strategists. The People of Israel, however, responded, “Why do you look at the Shulammite? “Kim’choh’laht ha’mah’chah’nah’yim.” Since the meaning of the verse is unclear, the rabbis provide two interpretations. What greatness can you grant us? Can you be like M’choh’laht ha’mah’chah’nah’yim? Can you do to us what G-d did to us in the wilderness? Establish the standard of Judah in the camp [“machaneh”], a standard for the camp of Reuben, can you possibly do that?

Alternatively: Why do you gaze at the Shulammite? What greatness can you give us? Kim’choh’laht ha’mah’chah’nah’yim, can you perhaps give us the greatness that G-d gave us? After all, we were sinners and He forgave (mah’chal) us. He said to us, “And your camps (mah’chah’neh’chah) shall be holy.”And even Bilaam looked at the people, eyeing them intently, because he could not harm them. As it says (Numbers 24:2), “And Bilaam raised his eyes and saw Israel dwelling according to its tribes”–-he saw the standards of the tribes of Israel arrayed according to their camps, and said, ‘Who can harm these people, who know their fathers and their families?’ as it is said, ‘Dwelling according to its tribes.’” From here we learn that the tribal standards were a source of greatness and protection for the People of Israel.

What, then, is the connection to the festival of Shavuot? The rabbis in Yalkut Shimoni, Numbers 684, note the juxtaposition of the final verse of the book of Leviticus and its closing words (Leviticus 27:34), “These are the commandments, which the L-rd commanded Moses for the Children of Israel on Mount Sinai,” and the census that opens the book of Numbers. The sages conclude that the proximity of the two themes comes to teach that the People of Israel merited receiving the Torah only because of the purity of their lineage.

While parashat Bamidbar may seem to be merely an exacting and highly-detailed account of counting and numbers, the truth is that the establishment of the camp of Israel was a singular achievement in the long history of Judaism. It was, after all, the structure of the Jewish family and the power of the Jewish home that provided the strength and protection for the Jewish people throughout the ages. Furthermore, it is only in the merit of their sanctified homes and families that Israel received the Torah.

Consequently, it is incumbent upon every Jew to know where they came from and where they are going. The nuances and the details of parashat Bamidbar are truly the secrets of Jewish survival. We must study them, master them, remember them and thoroughly embrace them.

May you be blessed.

Please note:

This year, Yom Yerushalayim, Jerusalem Reunification Day is observed this Tuesday evening, May 7th through Wednesday night, May 8th. This year marks the 46th anniversary of the reunification of the city.

Please note:

The wonderful festival of Shavuot commemorating the giving of the Torah at Sinai 3325 years ago is observed this year on Tuesday evening, May 14th, and continues through Thursday night, May 16th, 2013.

Chag Shavuot Samayach. Have a happy and festive Shavuot.