A Taste of Torah: Weekly Commentary from the JTS Community
May 27, 2006 29 Iyyar 5766
This week's commentary was written by Rabbi Matthew Berkowitz, Senior Rabbinic Fellow, JTS
Order is the essence of Torah. In Genesis, God creates the world by imposing order on chaos; and in Exodus, God imposes order on a people shattered by 400 years of servitude. The transition is especially dramatic for the Israelites — their change in orientation must be two-fold, physical and spiritual. Nothing less than a revolution is required to transform these ex-slaves of Pharaoh into the loyal servants of God. And so, having proposed a legal (Revelation, specifically the laws of Torah) and ritualistic (sacrificial system as outlined in Leviticus) order for the newly freed Israelites, the Book of Numbers opens by establishing spatial order. Far from traveling and encamping in a haphazard, chaotic fashion, the Israelites are given a deliberate plan: "they will encamp around the Tabernacle" (Numbers 1:50). Additionally, the parashah describes the detailed positioning of the tribes: "Camped on the front, or east side: the standard of the division of Judah . . .on the south: the standard of Reuven . . . on the west: the standard of the division of Ephraim, troop by troop. . . on the north: the standard of the division of Dan . . ." What can be learned from this meticulous order and in particular, from the focal point of the encampment?
Foremost, above all concerns of the spatial order is the shared focus. As the tabernacle represented the dwelling of God's presence amidst the Israelites, it is no surprise that all eyes would be rooted on this sacred space. Such positioning offered the Israelites a tangible mission statement for their journey toward the land of Israel. They marched not solely for themselves or for the community about them, but more significantly as sacred witnesses to the presence of God. Ideally, their focus and journey was l'shem shmayim, "for the sake of the Heavens, for the sake of God."
More significantly, Numbers 2:2 declares, "The Israelites shall camp each with his standard, under the banners of their ancestral house; they will camp around the Tent of Meeting at a distance." Responding to this verse, Rashi, the medieval commentator writes, "Each banner shall have a different sign — a piece of colored cloth hanging on it, the color of the one not being the same as the color of another, but the color of each tribe shall be like that of the stone that is fixed in the breastplate [of the High Priest]." Each "ancestral house" then, has its own distinct banner. And presumably, the differing banners represent not only a difference in color but more deeply, a difference in familial cultures. The beauty, encapsulated in the midrash quoted by Rashi, is symbolized by the breastplate of the priest. As the high priest performs his duties, he adorns a plate of twelve precious stones — each stone representing one of the tribes. Symbolically then, he is engaged in the work of God — cognizant of the diversity that exists in the Israelites. This balance is further reflected in the encampment: while the people face a common focal point, their diversity around that space is recognized and nurtured.
In his commentary to Parashat B'midbar, Rabbi Shmuel Avidor HaCohen writes of the arduous journey that lies ahead of the nation. Specifically he points out, "The Israelites wander in the desert not for one day, but for forty consecutive. And certainly, Israel was not given to them on a silver platter. In the final portions of this book of Torah, we read of the trials and tribulations that befell the people — especially of the strong nations that prevented the Israelites from reaching the Promised Land . . . Long and hard is the journey taken from the Sea of Reeds to the Plains of Jordan" (HaCohen, Likrat Shabbat, 142). As arduous as the journey to the Promised Land was for our ancestors, and continues to be for us, there is order, respect for diversity, and a keen sense of vision that urge us onward.
May we take this message to heart — seeking always to place ourselves around God's presence, embracing the diversity in our midst as a source of strength, and continually moving toward the Promised Land.
Rabbi Matthew Berkowitz