It is taught that before Jacob died, he instilled in his children great inner strength and the ability to remain dignified in the face of adversity and tribulations. This later became a part of the Jewish DNA.
This week’s Torah portion is Bamidbar (Numbers 1:1-4:20). The word “bamidbar” means “in the desert,” and as you guessed it, the reading deals heavily with the events and arrangements for the upcoming 40-year trek in the desert.
One of these arrangements was the formation according to which that the Jewish people would travel. Moses divided the 12 tribes into four groups. Each group would travel and make camp along one of the sides of the Mishkan (the Tabernacle – the portable sanctuary) which was located in the center of the camp.
The Midrash records that Moses was a bit nervous about the task of assigning the tribes to their respective places. He was worried that fights would break out among all the different tribes. He figured that if he assigned the tribe of Judah to the east, they would want the south. The tribe he assigns to the north would want to be situated in the west, and so on.
But God told Moses not to worry, and that each tribe would happily accept whichever position he gives them. And why would each tribe be happy with their assigned position? Because their intended formation dates back to the days of Jacob their forefather. The travel formation of the tribes was intended to replicate the formation that Jacob had assigned his children to position themselves when they would carry his coffin for burial in Hebron. The same three sons that were in the front of the coffin – that tribe would be in front in the desert formation; the same three sons that were on either side of the coffin – those tribes were placed on the respective sides of the camp, and so on.
The commentators, however, are bothered by this Midrash. Why and what was Moses worried about in the first place? Could it be that the leaders of the tribes would engage in petty temper tantrums? These weren’t petty individuals! They were the leaders of the Jewish people! And why was it important that the Jewish people should travel in the same position as their forefathers when carrying Jacob’s coffin?
When the Going Gets Tough…
It is explained that Moses was worried that human nature, when things are going well, is not the same as when things are tough. People will often act one way in a posh, air-conditioned office, wearing a three piece suit, but if you put these same people in the Sinai desert for 40 years…and you get the picture. A person’s nature often changes based on external circumstances.
As a result, God told Moses not to worry because the Jewish people are different. It is taught that before Jacob died, he instilled in his children great inner strength and the ability to remain dignified in the face of adversity and tribulations. This later became a part of the Jewish DNA.
Indeed, one need look no further than the Holocaust to see how the Jews maintained their dignity, and even normal routine, to the best of their ability in ghettos and in the camps. No matter how beaten, starved or overworked they were, they maintained their dignity and humanity. There are countless stories of Jews sharing what little food they had with one another, treating the sick and wounded, and even observing all the Jewish holidays right under the noses of the Nazis. This is exactly what Jacob programmed into the Jewish DNA.
And this is what Moses quickly learned. The harsh elements of the desert were no match for the dignity of the Jewish people. The formation they were given way-back-when would be the formation they would keep whenever coming, traveling or uniting together for whatever purpose. That was true then, and it remains true now. No petty quibbling here.
So the next time you feel like losing your cool, exploding out of frustration or taking out a bad day on your spouse, remember to tap in to your Jewish DNA of dignity – a gift courtesy of our Patriarch Jacob.
For more insights on this week’s Torah portion by Rabbi Ari Enkin, click on the links below: