To the east of the Tabernacle camped the group made up of Judah, Yissachar and Zebulun. To the south, Reuben, Simon and Gad. To the west, Ephraim, Menashe and Benjamin. And to the north, Dan, Asher and Naphtali.
The inner circle surrounding the Tabernacle was allocated to the three Levite families, as well as the tents of Moses and Aaron.
Why is the Torah so particular about the formation of the camp? Furthermore, why does the Torah promote separatism between tribes?
The Israelites had just left Egypt, had just become an independent nation and were now charged with their mission at Sinai. One would expect that the first step would be to unify the entire nation under one banner, one flag. There should be no difference between the Goldbergs, the Goldsteins and the Goldwassers. One nation, under G-d, indivisible…
In reality, however, each tribe had its unique banner and symbol. They were encouraged to remain apart from other tribes, and even when they would arrive in the Promised Land, nearly forty years later, they would be divided into tribal territories.
Many commentators discuss the significance of this particular formation. It mirrors the formation of the angels surrounding the Lord in heaven. The four directions are symbolic of various strengths etc. However, I have not encountered a general explanation for the separatism. Maybe I’m just too thick to get it and for everyone else it goes without saying.
Clearly, there is value in preserving our individual identities. We have reason to be proud of our respective ancestry, of our families which remain unique within the greater global community. It is fashionable today to blur lines of distinction, to seek the common ground between different people, ignoring and downplaying discrepancies. We want the entire world to be westernized; we want our values to be shared by all. Universal rights, global standards, international currencies etc.
We want everyone to have the opportunity to be like us. The media has been very effective at penetrating nations and communities, luring their young from the laps of their families into cultures foreign to their parents. Many wonderful results have come out of this, but it has also been life shattering for individual families and extremely costly for entire cultures and heritages, not to mention the identity crises it has sparked for individuals.
“…Each man by his banner, according to the insignia of their fathers’ household, at a distance surrounding the Tent of Meeting shall they encamp,” spoke G-d to Moses and Aaron. (Numbers 2:2)
Part of being Jewish is following your family tradition and custom. Judaism doesn’t like melting pots. We have a time honored tradition of being different from one another. Various communities have developed customs over the centuries that differ from customs of other communities. It is a heritage we should carry with pride. We each play a role in the cosmic scheme. We are players in a symphony, making music of a particular pitch and tone. When combined with other players it results in harmony. Trying to play somebody else’s notes disrupts the harmony, making more of a cacophony.
The verse quoted above, instructing each man to take his place in society, also states that “surrounding the Tent of Meeting shall they encamp.” Our difference are welcome and are helpful in defining our identity and place in relation to others in society, but only when we share a common objective. We can, and should, have a different approach, but only when the destination is the same as that of the next person.
The Mishnah in Avot (4:14) states that any argument, any differing opinions, if their motive is for the sake of heaven their discussion will endure. Some commentators understand this to mean that if both share an objective of truth, then fighting it out will bring the truth to the fore and ultimately the discussion will have enduring value. If the argument is ‘surrounding the Tent of Meeting,’ it will produce positive results.
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