Bamidbar: Balancing the Camp

Copyright 2013 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Bamidbar

Happy Rosh Chodesh Iyyar!

On the south: the standard of the division of Reuven, troop by troop. . .  Camping next to it: The tribe of Shimon . . . . And the tribe of Gad. (Bamidbar 2: 10-14, abridged.)

We’re starting a new month and a new book of the Torah, Bamidbar, which means “in the wilderness” and which tells the story of the Israelites on their long journey from Sinai to the Promised Land. The book, and our weekly reading, begin with a census of the people (hence the English name “Numbers” and then describes how the 12 tribes would camp in a certain formation around the Tent of Meeting, 3 tribes on each side.

The famed rabbi and Torah commentator S. R. Hirsch notes in the first above that Reuven, the firstborn, was paired with Shimon and Gad, who were later on in the line of Yaakov’s descendants. It’s a common theme of traditional commentary that the tribes reflect the character of their ancestors; Hirsch notes that Reuven, the eldest, was not given the right of leadership, perhaps because he lacked the force of character to stop his brothers from harming Yosef (cf. Genesis 37). Reuven later shamed his father by sleeping with Yaakov’s concubine (ibid 35:22) which earned him rebuke even when Yaakov was on his deathbed. (49:3-4)

Shimon, on the other hand, was half of the pair (with his brother Levi) who deceived and slaughtered the men of Shechem in retaliation for abusing their sister Dinah (see this chapter); even years later, they were called cruel men of vengeance by their father. (49:5-7) Of Gad we know little, except that Yaakov predicted that his descendents would be a victorious military force.

Hirsch sees the placing of Reuven with Shimon and Gad as a way to balance out the tendencies of their ancestors: Reuven was merciful in intent but ineffective in action during the rupture between Yosef and his brothers, while Shimon was quick to strike bloody vengeance after their sister was taken without thought to the consequences. The mercy and mildness (to use Hirsch’s phrase) of Reuven has to be a counterweight to the strength and righteous fury of Shimon and the prowess of Gad. Without that balance, strength will be used for cruelty and good intentions will mean nothing in a world which often requires us to stand firm.

Of course, the Tent of Meeting is no longer something to be protected out there in the world; it is symbolic of that point of the holy we each bear internally. Our own souls need a balance of mercy and strength, kindness and outrage, for how else can we move forward in this world, and even more, move the world forward?

Shabbat Shalom


1 Comment »

  1. Joan said

    An interesting thought.Thanks

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