Parashat Bamidbar begins with God’s command to Moshe to conduct a census of Benei Yisrael, several weeks before they journeyed from Sinai towards the Land of Israel. God named twelve leaders – one from each tribe – who would assist Moshe in the process, as each tribe was counted separately.
God’s list of these twelve men (1:5-15) is presented according to the sequence of Yaakov’s four wives. It begins with the tribes descending from Leah’s six sons, proceeding from oldest to youngest (Reuven, Shimon, Levi, Yehuda, Yissakhar, Zevulun), and then lists the tribes descending from Rachel’s two sons – Efrayim and Menashe (Yosef’s two sons), and Binyamin. The list concludes with the four tribes produced from the sons of Yaakov’s maidservants (Dan, Asher, Gad and Naftali).
Interestingly, however, when the Torah presents the results of the census (1:20-43), it follows a different sequence, based on the tribes’ arrangement as they encamped. It first tells the population of the tribes of Reuven, Shimon and Gad – the three tribes who encamped to the south (2:10); followed by Yehuda, Yissakhar and Zevulun, who encamped to the east (2:3); then Efrayim, Menashe and Binyamin, who encamped to the west (2:18), and, finally, Dan, Asher and Naftali, who encamped to the north (2:25).
We might wonder why God did not list to Moshe the names of the tribes’ representatives in the same sequence in which the census was conducted. As these men were appointed to assist Moshe, with each assigned over the census of his tribe, then we would have expected to find symmetry between the way they are introduced and the way the census is presented.
Rav Shaul Lowenstam of Amsterdam, in his Binyan Ariel, reaches a surprising conclusion based on the sequence in which the representatives are introduced. He suggests that although one representative was appointed for each tribe, this does not mean that – as we would instinctively assume – each appointee was involved only in the census of his tribe. All twelve worked together with Moshe and Aharon in conducting the entire census, rather than each dealing only with the counting of his own tribe. Therefore, the list of the representatives is not parallel to the list of the twelve censuses, because the representatives were not appointed only to work with their respective tribes. They all took part in all twelve censuses.
Rav Lowenstam suggests that this is Rashi’s intent in commenting on God’s instruction to Moshe and Aharon, “And one person for each tribe shall be with you [when conducting the census]” (1:4). Rashi writes: “When you count them [the nation], the leader of each and every tribe shall be with you.” At first glance, Rashi does not appear to add anything to our understanding of this verse. Perhaps, Rav Lowenstam writes, Rashi means that the leaders of all the tribes would accompany Moshe and Aharon throughout the entire process, rather than each leader working only to count his own tribe.
Great emphasis is placed on tribal affiliation throughout the beginning of Sefer Bamidbar. We read how each tribe was counted separately, and arranged in a particular location during travel and encampment. Even in the celebration of the dedication of the Mishkan, each tribe’s leader brought a special offering each day (chapter 7). This emphasis expresses the notion of singularity and distinctiveness, how different groups are encouraged to develop their unique characters and qualities. However, Rav Lowenstam’s insight into the role of the tribal leaders during the census shows that even as the different tribes preserve their distinct identities, they must also work together and look out for one another. The differences between the different groups the comprise Am Yisrael must never lead them to disregard one another, and we must all be prepared to help all our fellow Jews, even those who identify with a different “tribe” than ours.