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Parashat Bemidbar 5784

The Rearguard's Redemption: The Hidden Wisdom of the Tribe of Dan

June 3, 2024
by Dr. Yakir Englander

Anyone who has spent several days in the desert knows the nighttime there—the human need to stay close to the nearby camp. Those who dare to leave the group and wander alone in the desert at night invite an encounter with their most primal fears: The desert’s silence, the lack of trees to hide behind, the roaming animals, and especially the snakes that are hard to see in the dark, sharpen the senses as well as the fears. It is no coincidence that prophets like Moses, Elijah, Jesus, and Muhammad had to go to the desert as part of their spiritual journey, nor is it coincidental that the Essenes and the Christian Desert Fathers and Mothers chose desert life.

The Torah portion of Bemidbar teaches that the Israelites moved through the desert in four groups, each consisting of three tribes. Two of these groups were led by Leah’s sons (Judah and Reuben), one by Rachel’s tribes (Ephraim, Manasseh, and Benjamin) – and the fourth group, consisting of three tribes of the handmaids’ children, was led by the tribe of Dan. From this description, we learn that even as the tribes left Egypt and became a nation, the social division between the tribes of the mothers and the tribes of the handmaids was maintained.

The rabbis in the ultra-Orthodox yeshiva where I studied argued that the separation between the sons of Leah, the sons of Rachel, and the sons of the handmaids did not stem from class but from a desire to preserve the “unique customs/Minhagim” of each ethnic group. They explained to us that although there is no prohibition against an Ashkenazi marrying a Mizrahi woman, it is not appropriate for us to do so. Those who tried to challenge this assumption were met with the strictest Haredi response: “Spast nisht” (it does not belong)—it is not appropriate for the sons of the handmaids and the sons of the mothers to live side by side, and it is not suitable for an Ashkenazi yeshiva boy to get engaged to a Sephardic/Mizrahi seminar girl.

The tribe of Dan, the son of the handmaid, was chosen not only to lead the tribes of the handmaids but also to be the rearguard of the entire camp of Israel. The members of the tribe would look every night at the lights of the other tribes ahead, and when they looked back, they experienced the terror of the desert darkness. The tribe of Dan is placed on the northern side (Tzafon), which can also be interpreted as the side of concealment (Tzafoon)—they are the ones carrying all that humanity hides in the dark; the unconscious, the forbidden fears and desires.

Commentators have sought to give meaning to this choice of the tribe of Dan. They sometimes claimed that the tribe of Dan is problematic; or sometimes the opposite—that they were so special that only they can fulfill the difficult role of the rearguard. For instance, the Tosafists (11th century) and Rabbi Jacob ben Asher (13th century) explain that the tribe of Dan refused to part from the pagan tradition they adopted in Egypt when the Jewish God abandoned them to slavery, and continued to carry the idol of Micah in the desert. In response, the Divine sent them outside the protected camp where Amalek attacked and killed some of them. Eventually, it was determined that the tribe of Dan would stay within the camp but as the rearguard.

On the other hand, other Midrashim praise the tribe of Dan and see it as parallel to the leading tribe of Judah (who led the Hebrew people from the south). According to them, a deep relationship existed between the two tribes, as reflected in the name of the leader of the tribe of Dan—Ahiezer, interpreted as a brother (to Judah) for support – Ahi (my brother) Ezer (support). In the Talmud, Tractate Sotah, Rabbi Isaac adds that the Shekhinah chose to be at the end of the camp with the tribe of Dan.

In my opinion, these interpretations do not capture the deep cultural DNA of the tribe of Dan. I seek to understand the tribe through the emotion of the rearguard. I return to my journeys in the army when our fear as soldiers of the desert terror caused us to connect with each other and function as one body, thus preventing any of us from feeling like the last rearguard in the camp. This is the role that the tribe of Dan took upon itself — to ensure that no one from the tribes would be rejected and forced to face the terror of the desert. In the book ‘Bekhor Shor’ (12th century), Rabbi Joseph Bekhor Shor describes the role of the rearguard of the camp:

“’The rearguard for all the camps’: Any person from the other tribes, who was delayed for any reason and could not travel with his tribe would stay with the tribe of Dan, which was last because he could not delay any further and not remain alone [The tribe of Dan did not allow any of the Israelites to be left alone]. Therefore, it [Dan’s tribe] is called ‘the rearguard for all the camps’ because people from all the camps and tribes would mix with Dan.”

During the Israelites’ journey in the desert, people from all the tribes who could not keep up with their tribe for physical or mental reasons were slowly pushed out by their tribes, who refused to accept them. They found their home behind with the tribe of Dan. Therefore, the rearguard not only defines the camp’s boundaries but also gathers those who fall out of the mainstream.

To fulfill their role, the members of the tribe of Dan had to acquire certain character traits. They had to be able to accept the existence of the full spectrum of human traits, including those that society refuses to recognize. Nothing human is foreign to the tribe of Dan.

Rabbi Nahman of Breslov stated that the tribe of Dan, the rearguard tribe, is parallel to the Amalekite nation, which used to strike at other nations and harm their weakest members: “Opposite the kingdom of holiness is the kingdom of wickedness, that is, the kingdom of Haman-Amalek… and this against this, for the kingdom of holiness is the rearguard for all the camps… the banner of Dan, which is the rearguard for all the camps.” (Likutei Moharan 56:2) If we try to understand this according to the characterization we proposed for the tribe of Dan, we can suggest that both Amalek and the tribe of Dan shared the talent to identify those among them in a place of weakness—a weakness that society refuses to protect. Not all of us can identify this weakness, but those who do can act in one of two ways: the first is to exploit human weakness and use it to harm. This is how Amalek acted, seeing the weak as easy prey. The second is to identify the weak and invite them to be part of their camp, as the tribe of Dan did.

Rabbi Nahman continues to quote the verse “The end of the matter, all is heard, fear (Yera) the Divine” (Ecclesiastes 12:13) to explain the distinction between Amalek and the tribe of Dan: the latter saw (from the same root as Yera) the Divine in the human image even when the person struggled to see the divine in himself. In contrast, Amalek identified the weak moment when the Jewish people were in a state of “no fear (Yera) of the Divine,” meaning they were unable to see the divine image within themselves, and the Amalek nation exploited it.

The Midrash Bamidbar Rabbah describes that each of the four tribes leading the Israelites (Judah, Reuben, Ephraim, and Dan) was accompanied by an angel who strengthened them for the task ahead. The angel who dwelled with the camp of Dan was Oriel—the light (Ori) of the Divine (El). The angel symbolizes for me the spiritual expression, of a human quality that the tribe of Dan dedicated itself to — being the light at the edge of the camp, for those whose community members identified them as lacking spiritual light, those who were affected by the darkness. The members of the tribe of Dan dared to live within physical and spiritual darkness, thus allowing all the laggards the other tribes to find shelter and a home with them. Thanks to this choice, they earned the divine light, Oriel, and incorporated it into their tribal DNA. It is not surprising, then, that it was precisely the members of the tribe of Dan, the sons of the handmaids, who could see the divine image in man and nature whenever they desired.

Dr. Yakir Englander is a senior director of leadership at the Israeli-American Council, and adjunct faculty at AJR. He served as the Jerusalem Director of Kids4Peace, and later as vice-president of the organization. Dr. Englander, who previously taught at The Shalom Hartman Institute, Northwestern University, and Harvard Divinity School, is also the author of The Male Body in Ultra-Orthodox Jewish Theology and Sexuality, and The Body in New Religious Zionist Discourse (with Prof. Avi Sagi)