This Shabbat, we begin the fourth book of the Torah – Bemidbar (Numbers 1:1-4:20), or Numbers. This book is the metamorphosis of the Children of Israel into a real Nation. Unlike the Greek method of naming the “books” of the Torah, for THIS book, the Hebrew name is the most descriptive of the content. “Bemidbar” literally means “In the Wilderness.” Yes, there are a few censuses that appear in the text, but the book as a whole, is involved with more than that. Also, this week’s portion is often timed to be read on the Shabbat before the festival of Shavuot, because there is a complete census of who was there at Sinai when the Torah was given.
Supplied with a defined marching order and a set of “rules” and “regulations” for civic and moral behavior, the Children of Israel will launch into the desert toward the Promised Land, and as they proceed, they will learn how to govern themselves, how to conduct diplomacy, how to interact with God, and how to interact among themselves. When they finally arrive at the shores of the Jordan River for the second time (Yes, they would be there one time, but tragedy ensues and delays their crossing by 40 years in a different place. More about that in later portion) they will be ready to march into and conquer the Promised Land. They will have formed themselves into a true Nation, only this time, they will have a practical knowledge of life and living, have a valid defense force in place, and will have a greater understanding, knowledge, and appreciation of God’s Presence.
Of particular note is the marching order. While encamped at Sinai, the People and their soldiers are arranged in four camps, which will turn into four distinct legions – each covering one of the four directions of the compass. When they finally move out, at the head of the column will be the Tribe of Judah as this is the ruling House (Numbers 10:14) At the rear will be the Tribe of Dan. The reasons for putting Judah at the “head of the Spear” are obvious, the most prevalent one being their superior strength of numbers. Judah has some 186,400 men at arms at the beginning of the portion and Dan has the second-most men at arms and they are at the rear with a population of 157,600.
We can only assume that, having learned from the attack of the Amalekites, the column now has arranged itself strategically. Instead of having to wait for soldiers to come around to the rear in the event of an attack there, Dan and his legions will be there, ready to do battle. And if the bad guys choose to attack the center and, perhaps, split the column, Dan and Judah can execute a a plan, entrap the enemy, and crush them against the other armies of the other two legions in the center. In this way, Moses and the leadership can lead the multitudes under their care relatively safely into Canaan.
The Rabbis raise other concerns in the commentaries. They wonder why Dan has to be put in the rear. True, they have the second-most number of soldiers, but in the rear, they will have to trudge through garbage, animal excrement, and the like. But the tribe members of Dan are tough – Samson will eventually come from them. However, the Rabbis notice that Dan is not a child of any of the primary “mothers” of the People. Dan was Bilhah’s child – the only leader of the four flag battalions NOT directly from the wombs of Leah or Rachel — and was looked at as somehow “deficient.” Some commentators insist that any combination of soldiers from the other ten tribes could handle rear-area defense, and that this a deliberate slap at Dan. But we see that the Tribe of Dan doesn’t see it that way!
Of all sources, Yigal Yadin makes a conjecture that, during the rule of Deborah, the tribe of Dan bailed, rather than participate in the Battle for the Ayalon Valley. He quotes Deborah who, in her “song”, complains in dismay: “… and Dan, why did he gather in ships?” (Judges 5:17). His thought is that the main body of the Tribe of Dan, other than send little more than 600 troops, headed for Greece! He quotes some contemporaneous though obscure Greek texts to support his position. But that, again, is a whole other story.
Bottom line, there was something semi-identifiably sideways about Dan, though their forces were needed for the trek to the Promised Land and subduing the Land of Canaan. Still, they were given the command of the North, the legion consisting of their own troops, and battalions from Asher and Naftali. Dan was described as enterprising and resourceful, but altruistic only to a point.
So, for the record, we have Judah and his allies in the East (designated in the Torah as “the front”, Reuben – the first-born – and his allies in the South, Ephraim – preferred son of Rachel – and his bunch in the West, and, or course, Dan in the North.
And at the center of the encampment is the Mishkan (tabernacle), and with it, the Levites and Kohanim. Having followed the instructions for its construction meticulously, God would have a place to “dwell among them” and manifest God’s miracles and protection as the Children of Israel prepare to move out from Sinai and on to their destiny.
On Shavuot, we have developed the custom of studying Torah all night before the morning Service. Being the anniversary of the receiving of the Ten Commandments, the People were bidden to prepare. And what did they do? They went to sleep for the night. Our Rabbis surmise that this was a slight to God – they should have been so excited about meeting God, that they shouldn’t have been able to sleep! So we make up for it in these days by studying the Torah all night. Another custom is to indulge in dairy for our meals on Shavuot. Why? Well there are several thoughts on this subject. Some say that one doesn’t have to kill anything to make the meal. (Try to tell that to the fish!) Others, taking a more legalistic approach, say that, when they received the Torah, that none of their meat was Kosher! It wasn’t slaughtered properly, nor was the blood removed sufficiently. So, after having learned about the Jewish dietary laws – Kashrut, this was all they could have to eat until they could properly prepare a new meat supply.
We have been counting the days and weeks since we left Egypt until this day. So we celebrate the giving of Torah at Sinai – a Feast of Weeks — and we now prepare to move out to the Land of Israel. When we get there, the Holiday of Shavuot will include a Thanksgiving for the Spring harvest.
SHABBAT SHALOM AND CHAG SAMEACH