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To Dwell in Spiritual Harmony
By Michael Chessen
Whereas the book of Exodus opens with a listing of names and sets the
stage for our transition from Jacob's extended Jewish family to the Jewish
people, the book of Numbers opens with a census of the now mighty Jewish
nation and lays the groundwork for their orderly formation into a single
large camp, or society. The Torah's meticulous accounting of all army-age
males according to their tribes seems to come to underscore a principle
that is present throughout the Five Books of Moses which is perhaps best
summed up by King Solomon in the book of Ecclesiastics: "A good name is
better than good oil". This principle is unfortunately overlooked in later
incidents in the book of Numbers involving the spies, who feared for their
physical comfort and tried to avoid "making aliya" to the Land of Israel,
and Korach, who sought undue honor and prestige.
In the context of a later "Levi family" incident in Numbers, Moses
merits mention as being the "most humble man on earth"(12:3). Our opening
reading of the book, Bemidbar, seems to present an apparent contradiction
to Moses' humility with the call for each tribe to proudly wave its flag.
However, it would seem that the Torah is simply calling for each tribe to
recognize and appreciate their differences as individual vital components
of the beautiful mosaic that makes for the whole of the Jewish people.
The formation of this early desert society includes mention of the
tribe of Reuvan as having descended from the "first born of Israel"(Numbers
1:20). This makes for the Torah's first mention of Reuvan's special status
since he appeared to have had it taken from him and transferred to Yehuda
and Joseph when their father, Jacob, blessed the twelve tribes. In
Bemidbar, however, we see that the positioning of the twelve tribes into
four divisions actually recognizes four "first borns". Reuvan to the north
and Dan to the south are, respectively, the over-all first born and the
first born of the hand-maidens; Yehuda to the east and Ephraim (who carries
first born status for Joseph) to the west are the "spiritual" first borns.
May we approach the holiday of the giving of the Torah as a diverse,
but singularly united camp, inspired to serve God with the same sense of
orderly devotion which our ancestors displayed in the Sinai Desert.
Wishing you all a Shabbat Shalom!
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