“The Tribe of Dan Traveled Last”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Beha’alotecha, we read of the first journey in the wilderness that the people of Israel took after they received the Divine signal to travel.

Earlier, in the Book of Numbers (chapters 1-4), we are told in great detail of the structure of the camp of Israel in the wilderness. The Tabernacle stood at the center of the camp. Around the perimeter of the Tabernacle were Moses, Aaron and his sons, and the three Levite families. Positioned around the Levites were the twelve tribes of Israel divided into four groups (standards) of three tribes. On the eastern side of the Tabernacle was the standard headed by the tribe of Judah, who was joined by Issachar and Zebulun. The standard of Reuben was on the south, joined by Simeon and Gad. The standard of Ephraim was on the west, together with Menashe and Benjamin. And finally, on the north was the standard of Dan, encamped together with Asher and Naphtali.

In parashat Beha’alotecha the Torah states (Numbers 10:11) that in the second year, in the second month, on the twentieth day of the month, the cloud lifted off the Tabernacle and the people began to travel. The Jerusalem Talmud, Eruvin 5:1, records a dispute regarding whether the Israelites traveled the way they camped, in a square formation, or in a straight line, with Judah leading and Reuben, Ephraim and Dan following. Those who maintain that the Israelites traveled in a box formation explain that the tribes traveled in the manner in which they camped, so that when they finally came to rest they easily returned to their original positions.

In Numbers 10:25, the Torah states: “V’na’sah deh’gel ma’cha’nay v’nay Dan m’ah’sayf l’chol ha’mah’chah’noat l’tziv’oh’tahm,” the standard of the tribe of the children of Dan traveled as the rear guard of all the camps, according to their legions. “M’ah’sayf,” here translated as “rear-guard,” literally means the “in-gatherer” of all the other camps.

It is quite likely that because they were the second most numerous tribe after Judah, the tribe of Dan was positioned strategically at the rear to provide proper security from enemy attacks from behind. Judah, the most numerous tribe, was the strategic force leading the march.

Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, 1040-1105, foremost commentator on the Bible) notes, however, that because the tribe of Dan were so numerous they had the necessary manpower to bring up the rear and gather any possessions lost by members of other tribes during the journeys. Rabbi Joseph Bechor Shor (biblical commentator, 12th century Northern France), concludes that the tribe of Dan collected the stragglers who could not keep apace with their own tribes.

Many of the commentators focus on the role of the tribe of Dan as “gatherers,” whether of lost objects or lost souls. The common thread that unites those two interpretations is that the tribe of Dan was involved in acts of kindness, restoring both property and life.

It is therefore rather surprising to discover that later in the history of our people, despite their noble beginnings, the tribe of Dan does not fare well. In fact, the tribe of Dan is frequently known for its sinfulness. It was the tribe of Dan that first introduced idolatry into Israel when it expanded its borders in the north and established the idol of Michah (Judges 17-18). According to 1 Kings 12:29-30, the wicked King of the Northern Kingdom, Jeroboam, set up an idol in the form of a Golden Calf at Dan, the only other location aside from Beth El to welcome Jeroboam’s idolatry.

The question then arises, how did the tribe of Dan, known in its early years for its kindness and generosity, become a tribe of sinners and idolaters. Some would argue that because the Danites were often lax in the proper performance of their commandments toward G-d, the Al-mighty tried to help them, providing opportunities for them to perform mitzvot by aiding their fellow human beings. As a result of their kindness, the Danites would, at least have these good deeds to their credit. Others argue that it was precisely the Danites’ devotion to the performance of mitzvot with their fellow human beings that made them feel that they could compromise on their relationship with G-d and His Divine commandments.

There is much to learn from the tribe of Dan. While Judaism does indeed define mitzvot, denoting some as being between G-d and human beings and others between humans and their fellows (a prime example of this is the division of the Ten Commandments into these two categories), the mitzvot are, in essence, one complete package that cannot be compartmentalized. Compromising one mitzvah inevitably leads to compromising many.

Can an atheist be a good human being? Absolutely. But without the element of G-d it is difficult to transmit those ethical values to the next generation. Can a theist or a religionist be a cruel person? Absolutely. Because without recognizing that the relationship with G-d is intended to impact on one’s relationship with fellow human beings, the spiritualist may become detached from the world, ignoring those who are in need, justifying himself by glorying in his religiosity.

What the tribe of Dan needed most was self-judgment and introspection. After all, the name Dan means “to judge.” Let us remember the tribe of Dan and learn from its unfortunate ending.

May you be blessed.