The Organization of the Camp of Israel
Sefer BeMidbar opens with a census of the people of Israel, as they begin their preparations for the march towards the land of Canaan. It has been more than a year since they have left Egyptian servitude, and almost a year since they have reached Mount Sinai, there to receive the Torah. The Mishkan has been constructed, consecrated and in use for more than a month, and God's communications to Moshe are now associated exclusively with its hallowed precincts. At Sinai's feet the people of Israel have thus remained bivouacked for some time and no doubt their encampment has become resolved into some sort of organized arrangement.
But surely, when we consider the matter rationally, we must admit that the people of Israel could never have even successfully traversed the vast wilderness stretching from the border of Egypt to the foothills of Sinai without their families, clans and tribes being arranged in accordance with some rudimentary system of organization, long before our Parasha spelled out a much more detailed system. This is a fact that the Ramban (13th century, Spain) highlighted earlier on in, the account of the initial journey from Egypt towards Sinai. In context, his comments pertain to the cryptic "statute and law" (see Shemot 15:25) that God gave the people after they had crossed the Sea of Reeds and were poised to anxiously enter the wilderness that pointed to Sinai. This code must have consisted of (since the relevant Biblical texts are otherwise silent on the content) a series of rules and regulations that perforce preceded any Sinaitic legislation by a number of months. The Ramban explains:
According to the straightforward meaning, when they began to enter the great and foreboding wilderness, a land dry and without water, God enjoined routines upon them with respect to their sustenance and needs that they were to continue to practice until their arrival at a settled land…these ways of the wilderness – to bear hunger and thirst – were to impress upon them the need to cry out to God without rancor. He also gave them laws to live by – to love each other, to follow the counsel of the elders, and to show modesty in their personal living arrangements with respect to their wives and children. Additionally, they were to demonstrate peaceful conduct to those outsiders that might enter the camp in order to sell their wares. With stinging rebuke, God made it clear that they were not to behave like the camps of marauders and desert raiders who perform every abomination without shame…(commentary to Sefer Shemot 15:25).
THE EARLIER ORGANIZATION OF THE CAMP
We therefore see that although the story of the journey towards the land does not properly begin until Sefer BeMidbar's opening sections, the need to fashion order and organization in the camp of Israel must have existed from the very beginning. According to the Ramban's formulation above, the earliest ordering rules naturally impacted primarily upon the INDIVIDUAL. These principles, which, it should be noted, the Ramban inferred by reason, must have included the need to show patience towards others even in the no-doubt noisome and trying conditions of camp living, as well as the necessity to show deference towards the tribal elders so that the cultural and generational bonds that held the people together in Egypt would not be destructively undermined under the new circumstances. Also, there would have been an absolute requirement to demonstrate modesty and reserve with respect to the personal living space of others, particularly in the crowded camp environment that was intrinsically indiscreet by nature. Finally, the people would have been expected to demonstrate basic decency towards outsiders of non-Israelite origins, desert denizens who eked out their survival by selling their wares to travelers. The sum total of these early "statues and laws," explains the Ramban, was to prevent the camp of Israel, a rag-tag and disorganized mass of freshly freed slaves, from adopting the more popular model of camp life practiced from time immemorial by the "marauders and desert raiders who perform every abomination without shame…"
THE NEW PROVISIONS AND THEIR TIMING
Significantly, however, it is not until our Parasha that more exact and detailed provisions are spelled out concerning the camp's order:
God spoke to Moshe and to Aharon saying: Each man in Israel shall encamp according to his tribal ensign and clan, around the Tent of Meeting they shall encamp. Those that encamp towards the east shall be the ensign of the camp of the tribe of Yehuda according to their number, and the prince of the tribe of Yehuda shall be Nachshon son of 'Aminadav…(2:1-3).
The Torah proceeds to spell out in clockwise fashion and in painstaking specifics the exact location of each of the tribal groupings, all of them to be neatly arrayed around the centrally-placed Mishkan: Yehuda and its allied tribes of Yissachar and Zevulun to the east (2:1-9), Reuven and its related tribes of Shim'on and Gad to the south (2:10-16), Efraim with the tribes of Menashe and Binyamin to the west (2:18-24), and Dan with Asher and Naftali to the north (2:25-31). Later on, it additionally emerges that the Levitical families are to be arranged in a tight inner ring around the Mishkan, while the tribes of Israel, their arrangement described above, are to surround them on the outside: the family of Gershon to the west (3:23), Kehat to the south (3:29), Merari to the north (3:35), and the families of Moshe and Aharon to the east (3:38).
It thus emerges that there are two separate epochs of camp living insofar as the tribes of Israel are concerned: pre-Sinai and post-Sinai. In the pre-Sinaitic period, which includes the year during which the people stayed at the mountain, camp living was cordial and considerate, while concern for strict order and organization was secondary. No doubt the larger clans tended to camp with their own, a cultural practice still associated with tight-knit tribal communities, but the living arrangements were probably more flexible and even somewhat fluid (see, however, Rashi's comments from the Rabbis concerning the episode of the "blasphemer," VaYikra 24:10). In the post-Sinaitic period, however, as the people prepared to take leave of Sinai and to finally journey towards the land, the system was suddenly tightened up as the tribes were assigned to specific organizational blocks and definite locations.
A GRADUAL PROCESS AND AN EXPRESSION OF VITAL IMPORTANCE
Perhaps the development may be broadly understood as a gradual progression: transforming former slaves into regimented troops and future homesteaders is no simple matter, as great adjustments must be made on every level – physical, emotional, and spiritual. First, the fundamentals must be addressed, the "basic training" of communal or national life. Only later can the "higher" national needs be considered, paramount among them the need for consensus, discipline and order. Nevertheless, we may indeed begin to wonder what specific catalyst, if any, was responsible for triggering the new arrangement of things. And here, it must be admitted, there is only one possible answer, for, as we shall see, the very text implicitly spells it out. It could only have been the new reality of the Mishkan in the people's midst that triggered the imposition of a greater degree of order than had been heretofore necessary or desirable.
Consider the fact that the tribal and Levitical arrangements are far from arbitrary. The eastern flank seems to have been most honored, for on that side were arranged the tribal block associated with Yehuda on the outside, while Moshe, Aharon and their families camped on the inside. But this eastern side was also the main approach axis to the Mishkan, for all supplicants had to enter its entrance courtyard and then filter through its strict hierarchy of spaces from the eastern side. The implication is clear: the approach to the hallowed Mishkan that resided at the core of the camp was to be protected by the presence of the Prophets themselves, and associated on the tribal level with majestic Yehuda, always the acknowledged political leader of the people. The importance of this tribal block is also highlighted by the fact that in the description of the procedure for breaking up camp and journeying (BeMidbar 10:11-28), Yehuda's ensign is to travel first (BeMidbar 2:9).
Conversely, the ensign of Dan was to the north, including the associated tribes of Asher and Naftali. While it is beyond the scope of this essay to explore the matter further, it must be noted that all three of these tribes were the offspring of the "maidservants" (see Bereishit 30:5-13), and often tended to be somewhat marginalized insofar as national developments were concerned. Here too, they were arrayed with the Levitical family of Merari, the clan charged with bearing the heaviest elements of the Mishkan – the boards, the bars, the pillars and the sockets (BeMidbar 3:36). Perhaps this quadrant of the camp, then, had a more proletarian character, paralleled by its northern exposure and by its less-than-glorious position at the rear of the camp when the people of Israel journeyed from one location to another (BeMidbar 2:31).
We may similarly explain the arrangement and location of the remaining tribal blocks and Levitical clans, albeit with somewhat less definite results. But certainly the overall implication is inescapable: with the consecration of the Mishkan, a new chapter was opened in Israelite history, the significance of which was not only the vastly increased importance of communal ritual and public ceremony. The entire arrangement of the Israelite camp was fundamentally transformed by the placement of the Mishkan in the midst of the people, and national life could therefore never be the same.
THE LOCATION OF THE MISHKAN AND THE JOURNEY TOWARDS CANAAN
But what of the link to our own Sefer BeMidbar and to the thrust of its narratives? After all, the building of the Mishkan occupied the latter half of Sefer Shemot and it was as a direct result of the Mishkan's construction that the book could accurately be said to be concerned with the overriding theme of comprehensive redemption: physical liberation from slavery on the one hand and the consequent forging of a cohesive spiritual relationship with God on the other. The Mishkan's shadow also loomed large over the passages of Sefer VaYikra, for early on its chapters spoke of the Mishkan's dedication. In fact, its verses from beginning to end were almost entirely taken up with detailing the rote and routine of the sacrificial service practiced in its precincts, as well outlining the linked laws of Tuma and Tahara that were exclusive functions of its environs. Why then was the great social revolution associated with the complete and elemental reorganization of the camp – a development that hinged upon the new reality of the Mishkan – not at all intimated earlier, even if practical considerations might have limited the actual implementation until now in Sefer BeMidbar?
The answer, it seems, concerns the themes of Sefer BeMidbar, this most unusual book of the Pentateuch. Unusual, because as the Ramban explains in his introduction, there are few mitzvot that are introduced in its pages, while the narrative sections surpass in length the pre-Sinaitic first half of Sefer Shemot, and even rival those of Sefer Bereishit in their scope. What story, exactly, are those narratives telling us, that justifies so much expenditure of chapter and verse? In broad terms, again turning to the Ramban's explanation, Sefer BeMidbar is about the journey of the people of Israel, the tale of their peregrinations in the wilderness. But it is not so much the journey from Egypt to Sinai that is described, for we have already learned almost all that we need to know about that excursion from the chapters of Sefer Shemot. Rather, the journey outlined in Sefer BeMidbar, highlighted by the twin censes of the people of Israel that neatly bracket the narratives on either end, is the journey to the Promised Land. Fertile Canaan is the destination of this book, not the stark and silent desolation of Chorev, and it is for this reason that the rearrangement of the camp, THOUGH IT MUST HAVE ALREADY BEEN UNDERWAY BEFORE THE BOOK OPENS, is introduced for the first time now.
It is as if the Torah wanted to make it abundantly clear that leaving the protective solitude of Sinai behind and embarking upon the journey to the land imposes new challenges upon the people that can only be successfully engaged if two intertwined conditions are met: First of all, the people need to be disciplined and organized, because no serious national goal can be met in the absence of order. Where organization is lacking, not even the best of intentions and most sincere of prayers can turn the tide. But when people work together so that the national tasks are distributed thoughtfully and equitably, then anything can be accomplished, whether on the battlefield or in the city square.
Second of all, and our Parasha emphasizes especially this point, unless the Mishkan ideal always remains at the core of the national endeavor, then settling Canaan is impossible. Unless the people of Israel are prepared to acknowledge and to embrace the centrality of God and of His laws, signified by the location of the Mishkan that stood sentinel-like at the center of the camp, then completing the journey to Canaan cannot be achieved, much less the entry into its lush expanse. But if Israel takes God's constant presence seriously, if they sincerely internalize the profound symbolism of the Mishkan and its Ark lying at the very geographical heart of their camp, if they consistently array themselves reverentially around that presence with discipline and in harmony, then the entry into the new land and the building of the new state can surely be accomplished without hindrance.