Lecture 39: The History of the Resting of the Shekhina (Part XIX) - "Those Who Stand Before the Lord" (Part III) - The Relationship Between the Priests and the Levites

  • Rav Yitzchak Levy

Mikdash

 

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Dedicated in loving memory of
Shmuel Nachamu ben Shlomo Moshe HaKohen (whose yahrtzeit falls on 10 Tevet),

Chaya bat Yitzchak Dovid (whose yahrtzeit falls on 15 Tevet),

and Shimon ben Moshe (whose yahrtzeit falls on 16 Tevet).

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            The wanderings of the Mishkan from place to place over the course of Israel's thirty-nine years in the wilderness raise fundamental questions regarding the Mishkan, its sanctity, and the sanctity of the place in which it is found.

 

            What is the nature of a movable Mishkan? Apart from the detailed instructions that offered regarding the order of taking apart the Mishkan and covering the holy vessels and carrying them (Bamidbar 4),[1] the Torah does not relate to this issue. It stands to reason, however, that even when the Mishkan is taken apart and in transit, the sanctity of the Mishkan does not entirely disappear. It is reasonable to assume, for example, that ritually impure people are forbidden to draw close to the Levites carrying the holy vessels.[2]

 

            This also directly impacts upon the sanctity of the place where the Mishkan is erected, which depends on the Mishkan being built and functioning. When the Mishkan is taken apart and sets forth on its journey, the sanctity of the place entirely disappears; the place which, a few minutes ago, had been the Holy of Holies is now open to a zav, a metzora, and other ritually impure people. The temporary character of the sanctity of the site of the Mishkan is a continuation of the character of the sanctity of Mount Sinai, as was discussed at length in the past (lecture no. 20 in last year's series).

 

            The upcoming lectures will be dedicated to this special situation. The present lecture, the first on the topic, will discuss the location of the Mishkan within the framework of the camp of Israel that was organized around it.

 

I.          THE SIGNIFICANCE OF THE FACT THAT THE CAMP IS ORGANIZED AROUND THE MISHKAN

 

Following the census of the people of Israel (Bamidbar 1), God commands Moshe and Aharon to organize the camp of Israel around the Mishkan under four standards, each of which is comprised of three tribes (chapter 2):

 

Every man of the children of Israel shall pitch by his own standard, with the signs of their father's house. Far off about the Tent of the Meeting shall they pitch.

1)            And on the east side toward the rising of the sun shall they of the standard of the camp of Yehuda pitch by their hosts… And those that pitch next to him shall be the tribe of Yissakhar… the tribe of Zevulun… These shall set forth first.

2)             On the south side shall be the standard of the camp of Re'uven by their hosts… And those who pitch by him shall be the tribe of Shimon… and the tribe of Gad… And they shall set forth in the second rank.

Then the Tent of Meeting shall set forward with the camp of the Levites in the midst of the camps; as they encamp, so shall they set forward, every man in his place by their standards.

3)             On the west side shall be the standard of the camp of Efrayim by their hosts… And by him shall be the tribe of Menashe… and the tribe of Binyamin… And they shall go forward in the third rank.

4)             The standard of the camp of Dan shall be on the north side by their hosts… And those who encamp by him shall be the tribe of Asher… and the tribe of Naftali… They shall go hindmost with their standards…

And the children of Israel did according to all that the Lord commanded Moshe; so they pitched by their standards, and so they set forward, everyone after their families, according to the houses of their fathers.

 

            This arrangement clearly points to the centrality of the Mishkan in the camp and its being the decisive factor in the way the camp was run. Nevertheless, there would have been room to consider another possibility: that the Mishkan should be situated at the head of the camp, and that the tribes should line up behind it in order. In this way, God's leading of the camp would receive greater emphasis. Why, then, does the Mishkan rest precisely in the center of the camp? I wish to cite here the main ideas of my colleague, Rav Yonatan Grossman, in a lecture that he dedicated to this issue.[3]

 

1)         "HEADQUARTERS"

 

The camp of Israel was organized in the manner of a military camp preparing for the war of conquest of the Land of Israel. Obviously, the "headquarters" had to be set up in the most secure place – the center of the camp that was protected on all four sides.

 

2)         EQUALITY AMONG THE TRIBES

 

The arrangement of the camp also has educational value. When all the tribes (with the exception, of course, of the tribe of Levi) camp at an equal distance from the site of the resting of the Shekhina, the inter-tribal hierarchy is less striking, and it is evident that all the tribes are equally close to and desired by the Shekhina.

 

3)         A CHARIOT TO THE SHEKHINA

 

The Sages learned (Tanchuma Bamidbar 12, and elsewhere) from the verse, "Every man by his own standard with signs" (2:2), that every standard bore an ensign serving as an identifying mark. As Rashi writes: "A piece of colored cloth hanging on it, the color of the one not being the same as the color of another… and by this means everyone will be able to recognize his banner." The Ibn Ezra cites a midrash about the drawings on the signs:

 

Our ancient Sages said that Reuven's banner bore a human figure, based on the derasha regarding the mandrakes (Bereishit 30:14), and Yehuda's banner bore the figure of a lion, to which he was likened by Yaakov (ibid. 49:9), and Efrayim's banner bore the figure of an ox, based on "the firstling of his ox" (Devarim 33:17), and Dan's banner bore an eagle,[4] and thus they were similar to the keruvim seen by the prophet Yechezkel.

 

            The reference in the last sentence is to the four creatures who bear the chariot in Yechezkel's vision:

 

As for the likeness of their faces, they had the face of a man, and they four had the face of a lion, on the right side; and they four had the face of an ox on the left side; they four also had the face of an eagle. (Yechezkel 1:10)

 

            In other words, the tribes of Israel accompany the Shekhina on its journey as if they were a chariot for the Shekhina.[5] As long as the Shekhina remains in heaven, it is accompanied by the chayyot and ofanim, which constitute its chariot; once God chooses to rest His Shekhina on earth, between the keruvim in the Holy of Holies, the people of Israel who camp "around the Tent of Meeting" become His chariot.

 

4)         "HOW GOODLY ARE YOUR TENTS, O YAAKOV"

 

Toward the end of the book of Bamidbar, in Parashat Balak, the camp of Israel, arranged according to its tribes, greatly impresses the wicked Bil'am:

 

And Bil'am lifted up his eyes, and he saw Israel abiding according to their tribes; and the spirit of God came upon him. And he took up his discourse and said… "How goodly are your tents, O Yaakov, and your tabernacles, O Israel." (Bamidbar 24:2-5)

 

            In addition to the idea of modesty that manifests itself in these verses (see Rashi, ad loc.), what is striking is the order and organization of the camp around the Mishkan – an order which in great measure is a Divine order – against the backdrop of the open wilderness, which represents nature with its lack of definition and limits.

 

II.         THE MISHKAN WHILE THE CAMP IS IN TRANSIT

 

THE ORDER OF THE TRIBES WHILE THE CAMP IS IN TRANSIT

 

            The verses in chapter 2 with which we opened this lecture state that "so they pitched by their standards, and so they set forward;" in other words, the tribes set forward in the same order as they camped. The camp of Yehuda set forth first; the camp of Re'uven set forth second; they were followed by "the Tent of Meeting, the camp of the Levites;" the camp of Efrayim moved forward third; and bringing up the rear was the camp of Dan. The Torah sums this up, saying: "And the children of Israel did according to all that the Lord commanded Moshe; so they pitched by their standards, and so they set forward."

 

The Torah section dealing with the trumpets (10:1-10) also states: "When you blow an alarm, then the camps that lie on the east parts [the camp of Yehuda] shall go forward. When you blow and alarm the second time, then the camps that lie on the south side [the camp of Re'uven] shall take their journey" (vv. 5-6). And in the continuation of that chapter (vv. 11-28), the order of the journey is described in detail:

 

And it came to pass on the twentieth day of the second month, in the second year, that the cloud was taken up from off the tabernacle of the Testimony… And they first took their journey…

1)            In the first place went the standard of the camp of the children of Yehuda according to their armies…

2)            And the tabernacle was taken down; and the sons of Gershon and the sons of Merari set forward, bearing the tabernacle.

3)            And the standard of the camp of Re'uven set forward according to their armies…

4)            And the Kehati set forward bearing the sanctuary, that they might set up the tabernacle until their arrival.

5)            And the standard of the camp of the children of Efrayim set forward according to their armies…

6)            And the standard of the camp of the children of Dan set forward, which was the rearward of all the camps throughout their hosts…

Thus were the journeys of the children of Israel according to their armies; then they set forward.

 

            Here, too, Scripture emphasizes that the relationship between the standards and the Mishkan in the camp was also preserved at the time of the journey. The camp of Yehuda sets out first; they are followed by the bearers of the Mishkan, the children of Gershon and the children of Merari; then comes the camp of Re'uven; they are followed by the Kehati, the bearers of the sanctuary – that is, the ark and the holy vessels – who arrive after the children of Gershon and the children of Merari have already erected the Mishkan and it is ready to receive the vessels; at the end come the camp of Efrayim and the camp of Dan.[6]

 

LIKE A BOX OR LIKE A BEAM

 

            The Yerushalmi in Eruvin (5:1) records a disagreement between Rabbi Chama bar Chanina and Rabbi Hoshaya on the question of "how did Israel journey in the wilderness." One says that they advanced "like a box," that is to say, in a square or a broad block, apparently in the same formation as while in their camp. This view is based on the verse, "so they pitched by their standards, and so they set forward" (2:17), which implies that the formation of the camp and the location of the standards while in transit were the same as while in the camp (this is the understanding of Rashi, Rashbam and Ibn Ezra, ad loc.). The second Amora maintains that they advance "like a beam," that is to say, in a line, standard after standard. This view is based on the verse, "And the standard of the camp of the children of Dan set forward, which was the rearward of all the camps throughout their hosts" (10:25; and see Rashi, ad loc., who brings this view).[7] The implication of this verse is that there are those who set forward at the end, suggesting that the camps advanced like a beam, one after the other.[8]

 

            What is the significance of this disagreement? The one who says "like a box" clearly emphasizes the uninterrupted preservation of the centrality of the Mishkan in the camp and the relative positioning of the standards around it, whereas the one who says "like a beam" prefers the practical order of traveling in a line. Moving like a box also preserves the egalitarian arrangement of the tribes (as was discussed above), whereas moving one after the other like a beam, the more important advancing ahead of the less important, stresses the hierarchy of the tribes.

 

            An interesting explanation of the two positions is offered by Rav Israel Ariel:[9]

 

Walking like a beam is walking towards a destination… It involves a search for a place for God… Walking like a box is like a group of Chassidim swarming around their rebbe. Walking like a beam aims at uncovering Mount Moriya, the starting point of the world… Walking like a box reenacts and continues the revelation at Sinai… It is there that God, who has no image, revealed Himself, in a place that has no intrinsic sanctity. Walking like a box provides the strength to cleave to the Torah as truth that does not change and that remains unaffected by changes in time and place. Walking like a beam is cleaving to prophecy and temporary rulings… which will eventually reveal the site of the Mikdash which was hidden by the Torah.

 

AT THE COMMAND OF THE HOLY ONE, AT THE COMMAND OF MOSHE AND AT THE COMMAND OF THE TRUMPETS

 

            Baraita de-Melekhet Ha-Mishkan (chapter 13) states:

 

Israel would set forth at the command of three: at the command of the Holy One, at the command of Moshe, and at the command of the trumpets. At the command of the Holy One – from where do we know this? As it is stated: "At the command of the Lord the children of Israel journeyed" (9:18). At the command of Moshe – who would say to them in the evening: In the morning you will set forth. Israel would begin to prepare their animals and their equipment to set forth. At the command of the trumpets, as it is stated: "When you blow an alarm, then the camps shall go forward" (10:5).

 

            There are many different views regarding the details of this process; we will merely present the main points. This is the understanding of the Netziv (Ha'amek Davar, Bamidbar 9:17, s.v. ve-acharei khen):

 

At the command of Moshe - that is, it would be conveyed via the holy spirit to Moshe in the evening: Tomorrow early in the morning you will set forth. They would begin to fold the clothing and [the rest of] the baggage, and to load the animals in order to leave.

And at the command of the trumpets – they would begin to assemble, every person with his tribe and his standard. For while they were encamped, even though their tents were arranged, each person with his standard, nevertheless the people themselves were scattered, and so when the trumpets would be sounded, they would begin to assemble.

At that time the cloud would begin to be taken up, and it would wait until all the people assembled, each person in his place, and then the Mishkan would be taken down and folded up. All this would take several hours, until everything would be completed and the cloud would move, as Moshe said, "Rise up, Lord" (10:35). This is called "at the command of the Holy One."

 

            In his commentary to Shemot (40:30), the Netziv further expands on the order in which these things took place in actual practice:

 

The explanation is: Since it is written in Parashat Beha'alotekha (Bamidbar 10:13), "And they first took their journey according to the command of the Lord by the hand of Moshe" – at first, that is, before anything else, the word of God came to Moshe that he should tell Israel that they should prepare themselves for a journey.

The term, "and they took their journey," means that they prepared for the journey, that is, they folded up their clothing and baggage… After they folded [everything] and were ready for the road, the trumpets began to set each standard and each tribe in its place. For while they were encamped, they would walk about from tribe to tribe, but while in transit, there was a mitzva for each person to walk with his standard. Even though in the book of Bamidbar (2:2) it says: ""Every man of the children of Israel shall pitch by his own standard," implying that even in the camp each person was by his own standard, this is not at all difficult. For there it means that each person would fix his tent and the members of his family by his standard. But each person was permitted to walk about from tribe to tribe, which was not the case while they were in transit. All this was done by way of the trumpets.

And the meaning of, "In the first place journeyed the standard of the camp of Yehuda according to their armies" (10:14) – that everyone from the other camps stood according to their armies by their tribe and their standard, and this is also called "journey," and in the course of this journey, the Mishkan was taken down (v. 17) and the cloud was taken up (v. 11), and it would wait until Moshe said, "Rise up, Lord" (v. 35) and then it would go, and then Israel journeyed.

 

            It is interesting that the journey "at the command of the Holy" – which the baraita learns from the verse, "At the command of the Lord the children of Israel journeyed" (9:18) – is understood by the Netziv as follows: "Until everything would be completed and the cloud would move, as Moshe said, 'Rise up, Lord' (10:35). This is called 'at the command of the Holy One.'" From where does the Netziv know that Moshe was involved in the journey "at the command of the Holy?" Is this journey not only "at the command of the Lord," but also at the command of Moshe? His source may be the Sifrei Zuta (10, 35):[10]

 

"And it came to pass, when the ark set forward, that Moshe said" – this teaches that they set forward at the command of Moshe. It is written: "And it came to pass, when the ark set forward, that Moshe said… And when it rested, he said, Return Lord." And it is written: "At the command of the Lord they remained encamped, and at the command of the Lord they journeyed." How is it possible to reconcile these two verses? How so – when they journeyed, the pillar of cloud would move from its place at the command of God, but it did not have permission to move until Moshe told it [to do so]. Thus, we can reconcile "at the command of the Lord" and "at the command of Moshe." To what may this be likened? To a king who said to his servant: I will sleep until you wake me up from my sleep. So, too, said the Holy One, blessed be He: I will not go until you tell Me to go.

 

            The most striking characteristic of the journey in the wilderness is Israel's sense of absolute dependence on God. In addition to their physical dependence on the miracles that were performed in the wilderness (the manna, the quail, the well, and the clouds of glory), we are dealing with essential dependence relating to the very objective of the journey and the definition of the destination. A great nation moves from one place to the next, and nobody knows where, when and for how long they will camp, or when they will take apart the camp and move on, and all eyes are set on the cloud that hovers above the Mishkan. And then comes God and shares the decision on these questions with Moshe, acting as the representative of the people of Israel – "when they journeyed, the pillar of cloud would move from its place at the command of God, but it did not have permission to move until Moshe told it [to do so]."

 

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            In this lecture, we discussed some of the main issues regarding the location of the Mishkan within the camp of Israel in the wilderness. The next lecture will focus on the cloud that rested upon the Mishkan.

 

(Translated by David Strauss)

 

[1] Unless specified otherwise, the verses referred to in this lecture are in the book of Bamidbar.

[2] The gemara in Zevachim 60b-61a discusses the issue until what stage in the disassembly of the Mishkan could sacrifices be eaten. See there, 61a, Tosafot, s.v. kodshim nifsalin: "For while in transit, the camp of the Shekhina was not considered as existing." But "regarding the camp of Israel and the camp of the Levites, even while in transit, it remained the Tent of Meeting, for the camps remained according to the standards of the tribes… And therefore, a zav and a metzora would be sent out of the camp, and sacrifices of lesser holiness would not become disqualified for having been taken out of its limits."

[3] "Ma Tovu Ohalekha Yaakov – Al Irgun Mirkevet Ha-Shekhina," VBM, Shiurim on Parashat Ha-Shavu'a, Parashat Ha'azinu, 5764, http://www.etzion.org.il/vbm/update_views.php?num=1526&file=/vbm/archive/9-parsha/39bemidbar.rtf. It is highly recommended to read the entire shiur.

[4] The midrash appears (with variations) in Bamidbar Rabba 2, 7, but there it says that the tribe of Dan's banner bore a snake (based on Bereishit 49:7).

[5] See the aforementioned lecture (note 3) of Rav Grossman, where he brings additional parallels between the organization of the camp of Israel and ma'aseh ha-merkava.

[6] In Baraita De-Melekhet Ha-Mishkan, chapter 13, it says that the children of Gershon and the children of Merari set forth after the camp of Re'uven, and the children of Kehat after the camp of Efrayim. See the Ramban (10:17), who tries to reconcile the wording of the Baraita with the plain sense of Scripture.

[7] It seems, however, that he relies on the account of the journey as a whole, according to which the banners set out gradually, one after the other. From a practical perspective, it is difficult (though not impossible) to reconcile this description with the position that the formation of the camp was preserved even while Israel was in transit.

[8] In the continuation, the gemara explains for each Amora's position the verse that had been adduced for support by his colleague. See also Rashi 10:25.

[9] Min Ha-Pardes: Ma'amarim Le-Parashiyot Ha-Shavu'a (Yitzhar, 5767), vol. I, pp. 300-302. See there for a more expanded discussion.

[10] The midrash is found in a more expanded form in Yalkut Shim'oni, Beha'alotekha, sec. 729.