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D'var Torah: Bamidbar


This Shabbat we begin to read from a new book, Bamidbar. How is parashat Bamidbar like the game of Monopoly? We’ll get to that soon. Bamidbar means “in the wilderness.” The name of the book in English is “Numbers,” because the book opens with God’s command to Moses to “take a census,” literally, “lift the heads,” of the Israelites. And virtually the entirety of the first chapter pertains to taking this census.

Then at the end of Chapter 1 we learn that the Israelites are to set up their camp according to a specific plan.

The Israelites shall encamp troop by troop, each man with his division and each under his standard. (Num. 1:52)

This is further elaborated upon at the beginning of the next chapter.

The Israelites shall camp each with his standard [diglo], under the banners [b’otot] of their ancestral house; they shall camp around the Tent of Meeting at a distance. (2:2)

Then the text specifies the exact placement of each of the tribes, which are arrayed around the mishkan in a square with three tribes on each side. Each tribe displays its standard, degel (diglo means “his standard”), and banner. According to the Targum Yonatan, the tribes on each side of the mishkan displayed a flag of a specific color with text and a device (a symbol) that represented that tribe. According to the Midrash Tanchuma, the colors that were chosen for the tribes were based upon the colors of the stones that represented them in the High Priest’s breastplate.

Rashi commented on the banners and their devices, basically agreeing with the ideas expressed in the Midrash Tanchuma.

Each banner shall have [as] its insignia a colored cloth hanging from it. Each one’s color was not like the other’s; each color corresponded with the hue of its gem set in the [high priest’s] breastplate. Thusly, everyone could recognize his banner. Another interpretation [of] “with the insignia of their fathers’ houses”: By the sign their forefather Yaakov gave them when they carried him from Egypt [for burial in Canaan], as it is said, “And his sons did to him just as he had commanded them” [Gen. 50:12]. “Yehudah, Yissachar, and Zevulun shall carry him from the east, Reuven, Shimon, and Gad from the south; etc.,” as stated by Tanchuma to this portion. (Commentary on Bamidbar)

The midrash Shemot Rabbah (15:7) uses the term diglo to refer to military units (hosts), but it is still clear from the use of the word b’otot, “with the signs,” that the text specifies that the tribes of the encampment displayed special signs.

In a mental picture of this arrangement I cannot help but visualize the Monopoly game board! With its four sides and color-coded properties arrayed around the board, the similarities are hard to miss. But Monopoly only has two sets of colors—properties per side, not three, so the analogy is not exact (so sue me).

All of these arrangements are preparatory to setting out on the journey to Canaan. Ever since their arrival at Mt. Sinai in the middle of the book of Exodus, the Israelites have been camped near or not very far from Sinai. All the events that occurred after the debacle of the golden calf through the building and dedication of the mishkan and the discussion of the laws in Leviticus, occur in the vicinity of Mt. Sinai. Now that the tribes are gearing up to begin their travels, and since this travel is to move through territories occupied by unfriendly nations, the tribes must be organized to travel and camp in a military fashion.

It is quite clear that the organization of the camp is military in structure. The first clue may be found in the census itself. The census had included only men “from the age of twenty years up,” and concerns “all those in Israel who are able to bear arms” (Num. 1:3). According to Rashbam,

For now they were supposed to enter Eretz Yisrael, and twenty-year-olds are suitable for military service. (Commentary, 1:2)

Second, the tribes are encamped in a vast ring; at the center of the camp is the mishkan, the headquarters, itself ringed by the encampment of the Levites. The fact that this is a military camp is further emphasized by the wording used in describing each tribe’s camp. As an example, take the description of Judah’s camp:

…the standard (degel) of Judah’s camp, according to their hosts (l’tzivotam). Nahshon ben Amminadab and his host (tzevao). (2:3–4)

This formula is repeated for each of the tribes in the description of their camp. Let’s focus on the word “degel” again. In warfare, then as now, communication is absolutely essential. A commander who loses his communications is certain to lose his battle. In ancient warfare communication was both aural (trumpets) and visual (banners). These ancient communication techniques are recognized in modern times in military units by traditional bugle calls and unit flags (the unit’s “colors”). The banners and the devices they bore served, in ancient warfare, as signals of the commander’s intentions to the troops and, not incidentally, his location in the field for rallying and support. The special devices on the banners let the individual soldier know where his particular unit was if he became separated in the confusion of battle.

A description of the devices drawn on the banners that the tribes used can be found in a midrash in Bamidbar Rabbah 2:7. This midrash was amplified and altered slightly by Ibn Ezra, who wrote,

Our early sages taught that the banner of Reuven featured the figure of a man, symbolizing the deeper meaning of the dudaim [mandrakes]; the flag of Yehuda had the picture of a lion, for that was the image that Yaakov used to describe him; the flag of Efraim showed an ox, since he was the “eldest of an ox”; and the flag of Dan was decorated with the picture of an eagle. Thus they appeared like the keruvim [cherubim] seen by the prophet Ezekiel.

Ibn Ezra added the last line of the above quotation to the midrash, taking the description from the first chapter of Ezekiel, where the four creatures that accompanied the Divine chariot are mentioned.

As for the likeness of their faces, they had the face of a man [Reuven’s banner]; and they four had the face of a lion on the right side [Yehuda’s banner]; and they four had the face of an ox on the left side [Efraim’s banner]; they four had also the face of an eagle [Dan’s banner]. (Ezek. 1:10)

There are several very interesting parallels that can be drawn between Ezekiel’s description of his vision of the celestial chariot and the events that occurred during the Israelites’ stay near Mt. Sinai. These parallels drew Ibn Ezra’s attention, since he links the Israelites’ camps around the four sides of the mishkan to the position of the four creatures accompanying the chariot.

Ezekiel’s description of the chariot’s first appearance,

And I looked, and, behold, a stormy wind came out of the north, a great cloud, with a blazing fire (eish mitlakachat)… (Ezek. 1:4)

is parallel to the description of the appearance of the Shekhinah to the people:

For the cloud of the Lord was upon the mishkan by day, and there was fire upon it by night, in the sight of all the house of Israel, throughout all their journeys. (Ex. 40:38)

And just for fun, look at the following verses, the description of the seventh plague, from Exodus:

…and the Lord sent thunder and hail, and fire came down to the earth; and the Lord caused it to hail upon the land of Egypt. So there was hail and blazing fire (v’eish mitlakachat) amidst the hail, very heavy [grievous]. (Ex. 9:23–24)

These are the only two occurrences of this term, v’eish mitlakachat, in the Tanakh. Is it just a coincidence that the haftarah for the first day of Shavuot (which always falls during the week that follows the reading of Bamidbar) is Ezekiel 1:1–28 and 3:12, which includes this verse?

Other parallels lie in the function of the guarding of the chariot by Ezekiel’s creatures and the guarding of the mishkan by the tribes’ encampment; and in the manner of the travel by both:

And they went every one straight forward; whither the spirit was to go, they went; they turned not when they went. (Ezek. 1:12)
...as they encamp, so shall they set forward, every man in his place, by their standards. (Num. 2:17)

The overall parallel that we may discern from Ibn Ezra’s commentary is that the guardianship of the Shekhinah in the mishkan was achieved by the surrounding encampment of the Israelites, but after the destruction of the Temple and the departure of the Shekhinah from earth, this guardianship was assumed by the creatures of Ezekiel’s vision.

Shabbat shalom.


May 2015





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