Torah Reading: Numbers 1:1-4:20
IN THE WILDERNESS
It was fitting that the Giving of the Torah took place in no-man's-land amidst the stark desolation of the Wilderness. Here no temporal king could claim that he played host to the event, thereby meriting a special share in the glory. The Children of Israel were chosen to receive the Torah not because they were the most glorious, but because their hearts had been broken through exile and slavery. For the only way to receive the Torah is through humility, symbolized in the lowly Mount Sinai.
Having been appointed as guardians of the Torah, the task of the Children of Israel was to bring it up from Sinai to the Promised Land, from which they were to shine its light to all the inhabitants of the world. Genesis traces the roots of the Torah and of the souls of Israel who were to be its bearers, and Genesis is thus the "head" of the Torah. Exodus is the "hands", describing how Yahweh redeemed the Children of Israel from slavery in Egypt "with a mighty arm" and made them into a unique nation through the gift of the Torah and the presence of His Sanctuary in their midst as the focus of their national life. Leviticus is the "heart" of the Torah, setting forth its main laws in all areas of life.
Now we come to the Book of Numbers -- the "legs" -- tracing the journeying of the Children of Israel on foot through the wilderness to the borders of the Promised Land, with all the accompanying trials and tribulations. Our parshah of BAMIDBAR begins in the Wilderness of Sinai, almost a year after the Children of Israel's arrival to receive the Torah. By now they had been taught all the main laws of the Torah, and the Sanctuary was in place and fully functional. The next stage was to take to the road and carry the Ark of the Covenant -- encompassing the entire Torah -- up to the land. The commandment to Moses with which BAMIDBAR opens, to take a census of the people and organize them by tribes, was a preparation for their departure from Sinai, which is narrated in BEHA'ALOSCHA (Numbers ch. 10).
As described in our parshah, the twelve tribes of Israel were to be encamped around the Sanctuary in four groups of three tribes each. When they traveled through the wilderness, they were to travel in the same formation. The positions of the twelve tribes were the same as those of Jacob's twelve sons when they carried his funeral bier from Egypt to the Cave of Machpelah.
Ramban (Nachmanides) opens his commentary on BAMIDBAR by pointing out that the way the people encamped around the Sanctuary was directly parallel to the way they encamped around Sinai at the time of the Giving of the Torah. We find in next week's parshah that they were commanded to send those who were ritually impure away from the Sanctuary and out of the camp (Numbers 5:1ff). This parallels the command to Moses to put boundaries around Mount Sinai at the time of the Giving of the Torah -- for "the stranger who draws near will die" (1:53; 18:7). At the end of our present parshah, we learn that even the Levites, whose task was to carry the Sanctuary parts during their travels, were forbidden to see the Sanctuary in its "moment of shame" while being dismantled (Numbers 4:20). Correspondingly, the Israelites at Sinai were forbidden to break through and go up the Mountain in order to feast their eyes.
These and other parallels point to the profound conceptual link between the Sanctuary (and Temple) and the Giving of the Torah. The Giving of the Torah at Sinai was a one-time event: the Torah "came down" from heaven to earth, providing man with a ladder of ascent to Yahweh. Having come into this world, the Torah had to remain the central focus of our attention forever afterwards. The Ark of the Covenant with the Tablets of Stone and Moses' Torah scroll thus had pride of place in the Holy of Holies at the very center of the Sanctuary, with the Twelve Tribes encamped around it. [Similarly, in the Synagogue, it is customary to read the Torah from a desk in the middle of the Synagogue among all the people.]
From the Wilderness of Sinai, the Children of Israel were to carry the Ark of the Covenant up to the center-point or "navel" of the earth in Jerusalem, "for the Torah will go out from Zion and the word of Yahweh from Jerusalem". This was the spot where Jacob dreamed of a ladder joining earth back to heaven. The Hebrew word for ladder is SuLaM, which has the same numerical value as SINaI (=130).
THE TRIBES OF ISRAEL
The Zohar states that the form of the Sanctuary corresponds to the form of the work of creation. Thus the various different areas making up the Temple courtyards and buildings correspond to the different "worlds" discussed in the Kabbalah (as explained in "Miskeney Elyon" by Rabbi Moshe Luzzatto, RAMCHAL, translated in "Secrets of the Future Temple").
The arrangement of the twelve tribes in four camps around the Sanctuary corresponds to the "four camps of the Divine Presence" and the "four camps of angels" that channel the flow of divine sustenance into the world. These are aspects of the MERKAVAH ("chariot") seen by the prophets, representing the system of providence through which Yahweh governs the world. The four camps correspond to the four roots of creation (Kindness, Judgment, Compassion and their manifestation in reality: "Kingship") and to the four elements (Water, Fire, Air and Earth, which is the "vessel" of the first three). The various different names and numbers making up the account in our parshah of the census of the Twelve Tribes consist of codes and ciphers that are bound up with the root forces in the spiritual and physical worlds.
The difficulty which many find in relating to sections dealing with the different tribes and their names and numbers is compounded by the fact that today the majority have become disconnected and even alienated from their own "tribal" roots after thousands of years of exile and wandering. Originally the consciousness of tribal affiliation among the Children of Israel was very powerful, as is evident from the end of parshas EMOR, where the episode of blasphemy was caused when members of the tribe of Dan refused to allow the son of the Egyptian to camp with them because his lineage was flawed.
Today, however, few Jews even know which tribe they come from, although the majority (besides Kohanim and Levites) assume that they are from the tribes of Judah or Benjamin, which were the only two that did not disappear when the Ten Tribes went into exile prior to the destruction of the First Temple. (Some believe that the Sefardic communities of Spain and Morocco came from the tribe of Judah while the Ashkenazi communities of Germany and Poland came from the tribe of Benjamin. This is mentioned by Rabbi David Kimchi -- RADAK -- in his commentary on the Bible.)
Besides being unaware of their own tribal affiliation, many Jews are also quite unaware that many people throughout the world whom they consider to be gentiles actually believe themselves to be the Children of Israel. Moreover, in many cases they believe they DO know to which tribe they belong. This includes enormous numbers of people in the Indian sub-continent, Africa and South America etc. as well as the Mormon Church, which considers America today to be the home of the Ten Tribes, and prominent members of British and European royalty and aristocracy, who believe they are the true Israelites (without explaining why they do not observe the Sabbath or other Torah laws).
Just to complete the mix-up, if you were to ask most Jews today to enumerate the different components that make up the nation, the answer would not be the twelve tribes but rather: ultra-orthodox, orthodox, traditional, conservative, reform, secular-right, secular-left, etc. etc.
Our fragmentation and disarray in today's sophisticated "civilized" world is in sorry contrast with the order of the camp in the wilds of the desert that saw our birth! Perhaps we need to develop a new way of looking at the different types that make up the people of Israel in terms of the order set forth in BAMIDBAR: how near are they to the Sanctuary-Temple idea or how far away?