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Beit Midrash Torah Portion and Tanach Naso

Hirsch At Your Table

The Three Camps of the Nation

A brief Dvar Torah on the Parsha, based on R. Samson Raphael Hirsch’s Torah Commentary
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צו את בני ישראל וישלחו מן המחנה כל צרוע וכל זב וכל טמא לנפש. מזכר עד נקבה תשלחו אל מחוץ למחנה תשלחום ולא יטמאו את מחניהם אשר אני שוכן בתוכם. (Nm 5:2-3)
After discussing the formations of tribes and people for marching and camping purposes, the Torah introduces operational details and specific cases as to how these formations would work. The first case is that of people sent out of the organized camp because of various conditions of impurity. God tells Moshe that because of His presence in the camp, the people must be commanded to send out of their midst individuals who may contaminate the camp with any condition of impurity.

There were three precincts or areas of Jewish life in the desert experience (and later on in the city of Jerusalem). The inner precinct was the משכן/tabernacle, which was the center of Jewish religious life. Immediately surrounding the Mishkan was the מחנה הלוים/camp of the Levites who serviced the Mishkan. The outer circle was מחנה ישראל, consisting of the twelve tribes of Israel. Based on the phrase אשר אני שוכן בתוכם, Hirsch concludes that God was present in all three areas of Jewish living and activity. However there remains a difference in the קדושה, the sanctity of each area, with the Mishkan having the most קדושה and the third, the tribal area, the least.

The word שוכן is from the root ש-כ-ן "to dwell." The word מחנה is from the root ח-נ-ה "to rest temporarily." The word בתוכם is from the root ת-ו-ך "to center." The word here is used in the plural, serving as the basis of Hirsch’s conclusion that God’s presence can be found in all parts of the camp. The word קדושה is from the root ק-ד-ש which means "to dedicate all resources" to morality and holiness.


The first of the two verses quoted refers to three categories of טומאה/contamination: the leper/צרוע, one who suffers from gonorrhea/זב, and one who has had contact with the dead (טמא לנפש). Obviously there are physical differences in the manifestations of these categories, but the social status of those who are טמא differs according to the type of contamination, as well.

The words טומאה, טמא are from the root ט-מ-א "to contaminate." The word צרוע is from the root צ-ר-ע "to erupt." The disease is identified by the eruption of skin. The word זב is from the root ז-ב-ה which means "to flow in unusual pressured circumstances." The word נפש is from the root נ-פ-ש which means "to return to spiritual repose."


The most stringent category of contamination is צרוע because it impacts on a person who simply entered a house that had been declared as contaminated. The person entering becomes contaminated and is declared a מצורע. Because of the seriousness of his contamination, this person is to be sent/תשלחו from all three of the areas of Jewish life. The second category, the זב, is less serious and is barred from the two inner circles, but is allowed in the third, the camp of the tribes of Israel. The third and least stringent is the טמא לנפש, one who has had contact with a dead body. That person is barred only from the innermost circle, the Mikdash area, and is allowed in the Levite and tribal circles.

The word תשלחו is from the root ש-ל-ח which means "to send out."


Hirsch sees symbolic importance in the requirements for distancing these contaminated individuals from the respective camps. He looks to the Jewish sources that provide incidents of these contaminations and concludes that each represented a type of lapse in proper Jewish living. The מצורע is associated with the sins of social defection and therefore is barred from contact with the total Jewish community, represented by the three circles of camps. The זב and its related body problems is associated with sexual impropriety and therefore is barred from that group whose role requires the highest levels of spirituality. The Levites interact with matters of קדושה and therefore must be free of any sexually related contamination. The טמא לנפש , which is excluded only from the Mishkan area, is an expression of the Jewish attitude towards life and death. It is as a living being that a person is able to express his free-will and his God-like disposition. Although even in death the soul of man retains its vibrancy as it returns to its Maker, the dead body has nothing to do with man's exalted role in God's world and therefore one who has come in contact with a dead body is to be excluded from those premises that are the sanctuary of God.


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.
Rabbi Matityahu Clark
Served in principal/director positions throughout North America. One of the founders of the Educator's Council of America, and former president of the Council for Jewish Education. Former Director of the Board of Jewish Education of Greater Washington.
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