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Parashat Bemidbar

May 21, 2009

By Kaya Stern-Kaufman

two of B ‘midbar describes the arrangement and organization of the Israelite
camp in the wilderness. The mishkan, God’s tabernacle, is to reside in the
center of the camp. It is surrounded by the tribe of Levites to guard and
protect it. In the east, with the rising sun, the tribes of Yehudah, Yissachar
and Zevulun are to encamp. To the south, in full sun and heat, will settle the
tribes of Reuven, Shimon and Gad. To the west in the setting sun, the tribes of
Efraim, Menasheh and Binyamin reside. And to the north, in a darker place, the
tribes of Dan, Asher and Naftali shall camp. The Torah speaks to us here in the
language of geography and orientation. Like a blossoming flower or the image of
the planets revolving around the sun, the Israelite camp expresses a truth in
spatial form. It is perhaps a model of community that offers lessons to us

In the Israelite camp, God’s dwelling place resides in the center. It is the
heart of the camp; that which is most precious and also most vulnerable. It is
guarded but it is also equidistant to everyone. No matter where one may be in
the camp, whether in the bright, hot light of the south or in the darker space
of the north, each tribe is focused on the one sacred center and everyone is
equally near and distant from that center. The Torah teaches us that sacred
community begins with God at the center, with equal access for everyone to God
and with a shared focus on the divine as the unifying point.

The description of the four directions which surround the mishkan can be
understood as metaphors for different perspectives. In the form of a circular
encampment, each position holds a valuable perspective. None is more important
than the other and together they create a complete and whole community. While
the camp remains focused on one point – God at the center – the
perspectives, inclinations, gifts and challenges that each brings, are unique
and necessary contributions to the whole.

In B’midbar Rabbah an explanation is given as to the spiritual meaning
of each direction and why each tribe was assigned to its particular position.
The south is associated with the hot fire of passionate action but also with
the capacity for teshuvah – repentance after reckless action. Reuven, by
virtue of his life story anchors this position. The Midrash goes on to say that
the children of Rachel possessed a certain spiritual fortitude to withstand the
harshness of the western sun. The west is associated with the spiritual
strength to dwell in a space where light is receding, darkness is mounting and
yet one remains connected with God’s holy presence – the Shekhinah. The
north, the place of darkness is associated with the tribe of Dan who, in future
days would fall into idolatry. This potential to become lost in the darkness is
balanced by the presence of Asher whose territory, in future days would become
the major producer of olive oil used in the Menorah in the Holy Temple.
Asher’s position in the north represents the potential to fill the darkness
with a great and abundant light. Finally, in the east, the land of the rising
sun, resides Yehudah – the leader. For as the sun leads the day and brings
light, so too does a great leader. He is situated right in front of the opening
of the Tabernacle.

As individuals we each have occasions throughout our lives in which we travel
through these metaphorical directions. Sometimes we dwell for long periods in
one place and sometimes we cycle through several spaces. Perhaps we experience
moments of great hope and inspiration- times of the rising sun. At such times
we feel we are right in front of the opening to God’s chamber and it is easy to
feel God’s presence. This is the gift of the east. So too, do we travel the way
of the South – into passionate and sometimes reckless action requiring teshuvah
a return and a repair. At other times we may experience the harshness of the
west; rough times that require deep conviction and fortitude to remain rooted
in what is our essential truth. And many of us have traveled into the dark
night; when all light has seemingly been hidden (tsafon/north/hidden)
from us. Yet, even from this place, God is accessible to us. And oftentimes,
those journeys to the darkest of places yield, like Asher, the brightest and
most enduring light.

The image of the Israelite camp reveals to us that there is a place for
everyone in a sacred community. This vision breathes through the generations,
through the Jewish people and perhaps even demands that we hold ourselves to
the task of creating such a community: a community in which all are respected
for their differences and acknowledged for their unique contributions. Each has
a place and each place is necessary for the life of the whole. A sacred
community expresses the vision: God is at the center of our shared focus and
all are equal in relationship to God.

There is much healing work to be done within our own communities. May the
wisdom of Torah shine a light on the path toward wholeness, healing and peace.


Kaya Stern-Kaufman is a rabbinical student at AJR.