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Tribes of Israel

Just imagine what kind of organization and choreography would be needed if over one million people were traveling together for 40 years.

This week’s Torah portion is Bamidbar (Numbers 1:1-4:20), and with it we begin reading the book of Numbers. The word “Bamidbar” means “in the desert”, which, of course is the setting for the entire Book of Numbers. It is in the Book of Numbers where we read about most of the trials and tribulations that the Jewish people went through which prepared them for entry into the Promised Land and forged them into the nation they became.

And indeed, the Midrash (collection of Jewish traditional teachings) teaches that every tribe was told the where they would be positioned and how they would travel. In addition, every tribe was a given a flag that represented their essence.

And believe it or not, the Midrash teaches that Moses was very against the tribal arrangements and the assigning of flags. He was worried that such distinctions and separation within the nation would lead to division, animosity, and disputes. Moses must have thought to himself, “If I put the tribe of Gad in the North and Judah in the South and the tribe of Zebulun at the back and Simeon at front and this tribe here and that tribe there– – pandemonium will break out! Some tribes will feel slighted, some will feel inferior, this one will be angry, that one will be jealous”. And so on.

God told Moses not to worry. He explained to Moses that the tribes were already familiar where they were to be placed and how they would be traveling because they were given these instructions by their forefather Jacob.

Huh? They were given their tribal formation and arrangements by Jacob?!? Jacob died hundred of years before the desert experience! What’s going on here?

The answer is that the formation in which the Jewish people traveled in the desert is the same formation in which Jacob’s sons carried their father’s coffin to burial. This formation was given to them by Jacob on his deathbed. Judah, Yissachar, and Zevulun carried Jacob’s coffin from the “East” side; Reuben, Simeon, and Gad carried it from the “South” side; Ephraim Menashe, and Benjamin carried it from the “West” side; and Dan, Asher, and Naftali held it from the “North” side. As such, God was reassuring Moses that no fights will break out. No one will be jealous.

I once heard an explanation of this Midrash (rabbinic literature), according to which Moses was concerned that in an unpredictable desert environment, people would lose their patience and civility toward one another. Indeed, when people are calm, relaxed, and secure, they are the greatest type of people that you’d want to be around. But when people are in a situation of danger, insecurity, and unpredictability – like the Jewish people in the desert – they are usually irritable, snappy, and stressed out, to say the least. Moses was worried that the Jewish people would be like this latter group, thus making his leadership and desert trek that much more difficult.

God reassured Moses that he need not worry. He was essentially telling Moses that in times of stress, trouble and tragedy, the Jewish people have it “built into” their DNA to remain civil and kind to one another. When Jacob told his sons how they would position themselves around his coffin in an orderly and dignified manner, he was essentially telling them that whenever things get tough, remember to be orderly, cooperative, and dignified.

Living in Israel, we see this Midrash, and its interpretation, to be proven true over and over again. When things get tough in Israel, when tragedy strikes, when war breaks out, when rockets fall – everyone works together to help one another. Whether it be administering first aid, helping the elderly and infirm into bomb shelters for safety, or just giving encouragement to the brave soldiers defending our lives – we see that the Jewish people always come together when needed. How we must make our forefather Jacob proud.