Counting and constructing the camps of Israel

The Book of Numbers is so called because it deals principally with the census of the Jewish nation and their organization around the Tabernacle according to their tribes. The entire census—including accounts of both the number of men in each tribe and an account of the total number of men in the entire nation—first appears in chapter 1. The order of encampment around the Tabernacle appears in chapter 2, “Each individual unto his flag with the banner of their patriarchal house shall the Children of Israel encamp, facing and surrounding the Tent of Meeting shall they camp.” Surprisingly, with the order of encampment, the Torah once more repeats the census numbers appearing in chapter 1. This second enumeration seems redundant. Why did the Torah first relate the census independently of the camp structure (in chapter 1) and then repeat it a second time when laying out the structure of the camps surrounding the Tabernacle (in chapter 2)?

General Census and Inclusive Structure

One idea that can be gleaned from this apparent redundancy is that number and structure (or quantity and form) are independently important.

The census—counting the number of Jews—expresses the importance of every single Jew and God’s fondness for each and every one of us. As Rashi states, “Because of His fondness for them, He [God] counts them at every opportunity.” Every Jew is God’s favorite and every Jewish soul is an entire world.

The census is divided by tribes and each individual is related to his own patriarchal house, “And they declared their pedigrees according to their families according to their fathers' houses” (Numbers 1:18) and as Rashi explains, “Each one of them brought their family trees and their birth certificates to prove their relationship to their tribes.”

Once the quantity of Jewish souls is known, once each person has been attended to as an individual, the people, as a nation of 12 tribes, are treated as a whole with a particular structure that joins them together. Concentrating on them as a nation, the twelve tribes are ordered and organized into four camps in a particular manner around the Tabernacle, with one camp (of 3 tribes) lying in each direction. Each tribe has its own flag in a specific color with a particular banner, and the full structure reveals the manifold relationship between them all. The number of each tribe is mentioned once more, while describing the structure, but this time it is an intrinsic part of a complete tapestry.

Given this differentiation between quantity and form, the census can be compared to the “Act of Creation” – facilitating the essential existence of each and every person in the Jewish nation, each one and his birthright. In contrast, the form, the camp structure around the Tabernacle can be compared to “the Act of the Chariot” (which literally translates as, “The act of construction”), revealing the complexity of the myriad relationships between the individuals and between their tribes.

Counting letters and drawing figurate numbers

This two stage process—from quantity to form—is reflected in our method of contemplating the Torah. The earliest Torah scholars were called סופרים, usually translated as “scribes,” but also meaning, “counters.” They were described in this manner because they counted the letters of the Torah. Today, we too first carefully count the letters in a given verse or section of the Torah. The act of careful counting gives us a chance to treat each letter as an individual point of revelation, like a precious stone (in fact, the letters of the Torah are designated as “stones” in Sefer Yetzirah).

Once we know the number of letters, we continue our study by contemplating what particular form, what particular figure, that particular number of letters can be arranged in. The forms we consider are known as “figurate numbers.” These geometric figures with symmetry that have a particular number of components. We then arrange the letters of the text we are studying into the particular figurate number found.

For example, when we count them, we find that the Torah’s first verse (בְּרֵאשִׁית בָּרָא אֱ־לֹהִים אֶת הַשָּׁמַיִם וְאֶת הָאָרֶץ) has 28 letters. The form that suits 28 letters is that of a triangle, particularly what is called the triangle of 7. We then proceed to arrange the 28 letters of the Torah’s first verse into the structure of the triangle of 7. Once the letters have been ordered in this form, the structure itself can be studied, thereby revealing many new insights into the meaning of the verse.

The Gift of the Camp at Mt. Sinai

The Torah portion of Bamidbar is read on a Shabbat that is close to the festival of Shavu’ot, when we celebrate God’s giving us the Torah. Indeed, the sages associate the organization of the Jewish camp in the wilderness to the revelation atMt.Sinai, which took place almost a year beforehand,

When God revealed Himself at Mt.Sinai, 22,000 angels descended with Him…. The angels were ordered under different flags…. When the Jewish people saw the angels ordered under their different flags, they began to desire flags for themselves, saying, “We wish we could have flags like them.” God said to them, ‘Since you desire to be under flags, I swear that I will fulfill your wish… then God informed the Jewish nation and told Moses, “Go and make them flags as they desire” (Bamidbar Rabbah).

God’s giving us the Torah generated the correct structure within the nation. While at Mt. Sinai the mountain was in the center and all the nation was around it, once the Tabernacle was constructed and the Divine Presence that was revealed at Mt. Sinai was drawn into it, the whole camp organized itself around the Tabernacle, “Each individual unto his flag…, facing and surrounding the Tent of Meeting shall they camp.” Mt.Sinaiand the Tabernacle were the two central points around which the camp was organized.

From Sons to Builders

There is a well known phrase by the sages that,

Torah scholars increase peace in the world, as the verse states, “All your children shall be God’s students, and abundant shall be your children’s peace.” The sages say: Do not read this as, “banayich” – your children, rather read it as “bonayich” – your builders.

AtMt.Sinaievery Jew became “God’s student,” a Torah scholar who learns Torah from God’s own mouth; they therefore also became builders. From this perspective, it now became fitting that they should be assembled together in an orderly structure like the angels and perhaps even more so than angels, since Jewish souls have a higher root even than angels.

At the exodus fromEgypt, our status as God’s children became manifest, and God called us, “My firstborn son,Israel.” As God’s beloved children, He counts us at every opportunity and each one of us is like an only son. But from the moment that God gave us the Torah, we are no longer simply children, having become a nation of Torah scholars, we are now also builders who, in addition to being beloved children, each of whom is singled out, we are also given the privilege of a specially ordered structure. The central point of that structure is the Tabernacle, which is the manifestation of Divine revelation and also of the Torah (the two tablets of the covenant were kept in the Holy Ark of the Tabernacle) and around it the Jewish nation was ordered according to their flags and camps.

Another version of the abovementioned saying regarding the angels seen during the giving of the Torah appears as an interpretation of the verse in Song of Songs, “He brought me to the winery and his flag upon me was love”

Rabbi Yehoshuah of Sachnin said in the name of Rabbi Levi, “The nation of Israel said: God brought me to a large wine cellar, which is Sinai, where I saw the angel Michael and his flag and the angel Gabriel and his flag and my eyes saw the ceremonies of above and I loved them. At that moment, God said to Moses, ‘Since My children desire to camp under flags, they shall camp under flags.’ This is what it means when it says, ‘Each individual unto his flag with the banner….’” (Shir Hashirim Rabbah).

Referring to this verse, the Zohar states, “Rabbi Elazar began, ‘Rejoice withJerusalemand exult in her all those who love her, etc.’ Since joy is only available at times when the Jewish nation is in theHoly land.” This interpretation of the verse in the Torah portion of Bamidbar indicates that the camp ofIsraelin the wilderness, the rectified structure of the Jewish nation “around the Tent of Meeting,” had the sanctity of theLandofIsrael,Jerusalemand theHolyTemple, all of which are places of joy.

Consequently we can learn from this that today, in the Land of Israel, in order to merit the rebuilding of Jerusalem and the Holy Temple, we must reconstruct the camps of the wilderness. This can be achieved by recreating proper order amongst Jews, including ceremonies and flags that express our uniqueness as God’s nation and our desire to be similar to the Divine Chariot , thereby meriting the return of the Divine Presence amongst us, “as comely asJerusalem, as awesome as the bannered regions.”

from Rabbi Ginsburgh’s class, Sivan 1, 5772

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