Beit Midrash

  • Torah Portion and Tanach
  • Bamidbar
To dedicate this lesson
Hirsch At Your Table

Travel Formations

A brief Dvar Torah on the Parsha, based on R. Samson Raphael Hirsch’s Torah Commentary


Rabbi Matityahu Clark

ויעשו בני ישראל ככל אשר ציוה ד' את משה כן חנו לדגליהם וכן נסעו איש למשפחותיו על בית אבותיו. (Nm 2:34)
After conducting the census and organizing the tribes into separate units, the people camped according to their tribal flags. And even the travel plans for moving the nation through the desert are conducted according to tribes and families.

Under their separate flags/דגליהם, the tribes were divided into four groups, each headed by a senior tribe. The first group was headed by Yehuda and included Yisachar and Zevulun. The second was headed by Reuvan, and included Shimon and Gad. The third was headed by Dan and consisted of Asher and Naftali. The fourth and final group was led by Ephraim and included Menashe and Binyamin.

The word דגליהם is from the root ד-ג-ל which means "to signal" using a standard. Its phonetic cognate is ד-ק-ל "to grow tall".

The tribal groupings and locations reflect the characteristics that were found in the final messages that Yaakov gave his sons in Egypt before his death, hundreds of years before. Those groupings were politically and culturally programmed to reflect the society as a whole and to service the needs of the entire nation. The tribal groups were camped/חנו and traveled/נסעו in identical formations.

The word חנו is from the root ח-נ-ה which means "to rest temporarily." The word נסעו is from the root נ-ס-ע which means "to travel" to a more appropriate location.

The leading camp characterized leadership in both the material and spiritual areas of national life. In his final words, Yaakov viewed his son Yehuda as the foremost of sons in terms of ability to rule/שבט) and legislate/מחוקק. Yehuda was the leader and bearer of the mission for the Jewish people. Yaakov’s son Yisacher represented the Jewish worker (חמור גרם) who also uses his leisure time (מנוחה) to learn Torah. Yaakov saw in Zevulun the commercial and shipping center (חוף אניות) who would provide for the economic needs of the country.

The word שבט is from the root ש-ב-ט "to control," The word מחוקק is from the root ח-ק-ק "to circumscribe to protect value." The word חמור is from the root ח-מ-ר which means "to heap" onto something. The word גרם is from the root ג-ר-ם which means "to lever motion" in heavy work. The word חוף is from the root ח-פ-ף which means "to enclose protectively."

To the right of the camp of Yehuda was the camp of Reuvan. This group personified intelligence, courage, ability to defend, plus the softness and feeling that is required for true justice. Yaakov understood that Reuvan, as the oldest son, was preeminent/יתר in leadership (שאת) and material power/עוז. However, as Yaakov knew all too well, Reuvan also projected an instability/פחז that would not allow him the true leadership of the nation. Also part of this group was Shimon, the quick enforcer and avenger of honor, as in the case of Deena. The third of the group was Gad, the protector of the nation who quickly retaliates against any enemy armyגדוד.

The word יתר is from the root י-ת-ר "to stretch and surpass." The word שאת is from the root נ-ש-א "to raise" to leadership. The word עוז is from the root ע-ו-ז which means "to strengthen." The word פחז is from the root פ-ח-ז which means "to lack stability." The word גדוד is from the root ג-ד-ד which means "to concentrate a military penetration."

To the left of Yehuda was the camp headed by Dan, the intelligent, clever, and judicious leader (ידין). In his camp is Asher, whose land will be the breadbasket of the nation/שמנה לחמו, and Naftali, the quick and eloquent messenger (אמרי שפר). This group represents strong internal development of culture and refinement.

The word ידין is from the root ד-ו-ן "to apply justice." The word שמנה is from the root ש-מ-ן which means "to nourish." The word אמרי is from the root א-מ-ר which means "to organize speech.". The word שפר is from the root ש-פ-ר which means "to harmonize and balance."

The fourth camp, to the west of Yehuda and behind the two flanking camps, was the group headed by Ephraim and that included Menashe and Binyamin. Ephraim and Menashe, the sons of Yosef, represent אביר יעקב, the power that complements the resources of the other tribes, particularly that of Yehuda. They serve as a backup in terms of leadership for the nation. Ephraim is seen as the guarantor of peace for all of Israel. Binyamin is also expected to defend the nation, specifically against the ravenous wolf/ זאב, Israel's arch enemy, Amalek.

The word אביר is from the root א-ב-ר which means "to soar above protectively." The word זאב is from the root ז-א-ב which means "to drag." A wolf drags his prey.

Even in the desert, whether camping or traveling, the tribes exercised their inherent qualities and talents for the good of the nation, as a forerunner to their final mission of conquering and settling the Land of Israel.

Copyright © 2014, Matityahu Clark. All Rights Reserved. This is an excerpt from the forthcoming Hirsch At Your Table, a collection of brief divrei torah based on R. Samson Raphael Hirsch’s Torah Commentary.
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