“The Lord spoke to Moses, saying,’ Advance the tribe of Levi and
place them in attendance upon Aaron the priest to serve him.’” (Numbers 3:5)
Parashat Bamidbar (in the wilderness), opens the fourth book of the Torah (with the same name). Like the book of Exodus, it opens with a list of names. Exodus lists Jacob’s twelve children, who become the Israelite tribes. Bamidbar names two leaders from each of those tribes who conduct a census. After each tribe is counted, Bamidbar describes its position around the mishkan, or Tabernacle, as the Israelites journey toward Canaan. To the east: Judah, Issachar, and Zevulun. To the south: Reuven, Shimon, and Gad. To the north: Dan, Asher, and Naftali. To the west: Ephraim, Menashe, and Benjamin. The tribe of Levi travels in the middle, serving as the carters and porters of the mishkan and all its ritual objects.
This arrangement is not arbitrary. It is how Jacob’s sons, the tribes’ namesakes, accompanied his body for burial in Canaan after his death in Egypt (Bamidbar Rabah 2:8). It also mirrors the four companies of angels who surround God’s celestial throne (Bamidbar Rabah 2:10).
This choreography also provides an insight into the verse, “Moses commanded the Torah to us; an inheritance of the congregation of Jacob.” (Deut. 33:4) Moses teaches the one Torah, whole and unified. That is why the Tablets of the Law, inside the Ark, travel in the center, at the heart, of the Israelite people.
But each son inherits from Jacob’s intrinsic sanctity a predisposition to the Torah. Since each son’s relationship to Jacob is unique, each develops a unique connection to the Torah. The tribes’ placement represents those different pathways. The Israelites surround the mishkan with a dense web of individual relationships. That’s what allows them to march forward with one purpose.
Gut Shabbos/Shabbat Shalom